I am currently reading the fourth book in The Peculiar Children series, which is titled The Book of Days. I was enthralled in the series after discovering it a little late and had consumed the story of Jacob Portman and the rest of Mrs. Peregrine's temporal clan with enthusiasm. I had read the third book, The Library of Souls, some time ago and had truthfully came to the final line feeling a little underwhelmed. It wasn’t that it was bad, no, I don’t think Ransom Riggs is capable of writing something bad, or for that matter, even mediocre. It was just that…. It wasn’t what I wanted from the series. This “problem” was compounded by Library of Souls being, what I thought, was the end of the series. I felt like I had been promised something, and when this promise wasn’t quite delivered, I felt a little cheated.
I put problem in quotations because I don’t actually agree that there is anything wrong. My disappointment, not does a failure make.
Some of this can be chalked up to the nature of art and consumerism. Ransom Riggs did not write the Peculiar Children story for me. In fact, if he's anything like me he wrote this story for himself. Hemingway once said that all it takes to write is to, “sit down and bleed” and this is, unsurprisingly, considering the source, as true and simple of a description to what it takes to make something worth reading as any other quote I have ever stumbled upon. Writing is hard, and good writing is even harder, demanding an authorial hand willing to reveal the pain and joys that beat through their own heart.
With that being said however, all good stories start in those bleeding hearts and belong to the writer until the day they hit the book shelf. This means that while a writer is carving away at his little piece of the universe it is his or her job to be true to themself, and to tell the story of the characters and places that they have breathed life into in the same way they began their journey; through sparks of the synapse known as imagination, and trusting the mysterious cocktail of intuition and experience that, if managed correctly, turn into worthwhile character arcs and plots.
Writing is a business of anachronisms and pseudo-rules that can be frustratingly obtuse. You might have been able to decipher as much from the three paragraphs it took me to get to to the following point:
Despite the selflessness required of a good writer, a writer must be selfish in his decisions for a story. Anything but leads to stale repearts of the same popcorn fluff that Hollywood is often, and somewhat fairly, accused of bringing to the big screen.
So Ransom Riggs didn’t write his story for me, or for anyone else. He wrote it to himself and to the characters that live in a world that had surely existed, in one form or another, in the British authors mind long before I ever had a chance to join them. But art is not consumed in a vacuum, and when the first book, the titular Mrs. Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, was cracked open for the first time the ownership of the story and the characters it follows transferred from Ransom Riggs to a million readers, each of whom had a thousand different paths in mind for how the story would come to an end.
This is, of course, why it is a fool’s folly to try to please everyone by writing an ending. You will still have thousands of people who, like me, didn’t quite feel satisfied. Worst still, you will almost assuredly have to add yourself to this list.
Endings are hard in real life and in fiction. Things rarely finish the way we expected or wanted and for every “perfect” ending there is a controversial fade to black. This will never be avoided, and the best practice for dealing with it is to write an ending that is true to you, and then let the chips fall where they may.
I don’t mean to say that Riggs was completely without fault here either. A writer’s job in any story, but especially a series, is to create webs that set up interesting development for plot and characters going forward. These little bread crumbs often are the sparks that catch our attention and keep us turning page after page, and I do truly believe in a few areas Riggs fell short here. As I said before, it wasn’t that what he did was bad. I simply felt like the first two books presented me with imagination and inspiration that promised story beats that I had never experienced before, only to end in a way that just felt too… familiar.
Does this mean the series ends with a whimper? No, certainly not. The ending is still quite good, and The Library of Souls is still, overall, brilliant. It also isn’t a judgement of Riggs as a writer. I have mentioned before just how difficult writing can be, and Riggs manages the craft with impressive expertise far more often than he does not.
The third reason for my reaction to the ending is my actual inspiration for this post, which makes everything up to now a simple, and probably far too excessive, setting of the stage. This reason is that it seems a part of the human condition to want to continue a story well after it ends. A lot of this goes back to the problem with story ownership that I spoke to earlier. We fall in love with these places and these characters, and saying goodbye on their final journey seems a lot less sensible than continuing past that last punctuation mark.
It is the reason there will always be rumors of the next Harry Potter book, or any other revival to our favorite stories. Hollywood has this problem, of course, with sequels for thirty years old movies being announced, but so do every other medium. We grew up with Harry, went on every journey with him, and explored the magical walls of Hogwarts and the rest of the wizarding world right beside him. This passion is what is beautiful about stories, as these characters come to life before us, but it is also the root of this problem.
We can’t say good-bye.
We have to imagine the stories beyond that final chapter, and in our ownership of this world passed down to us by the authors we feel the need to imagine brand new drama and winding plot lines.
It is a natural thing, just as it is natural to not imagine that Harry spent the rest of his life in an uneventful barrage of days at the office, raising his children, and retirement, or that after The Return of The Jedi Luke took up the tradition of the man that raised him and retired to the quiet life of a moisture farmer on Tatooine. Certainly these are possible endings, but we “know” they aren’t what happened. These characters went on to bold and exciting new adventures and we are just waiting to get them revealed to us by the stubborn (and, it seems, selfish) storytellers.
Sometimes these needs for continuation lead to something brand new, and equally as beautiful. Blade Runner 2049 is an excellent example of this. Sometimes though, it is not what we wanted, and feels completely different from the path we expected…coughcough..The Cursed Child..coughcough. More often than not however, it is somewhere in between; a nostalgia filled romp that has us grinning like a child at the beginning, and feeling a little meh by the end. Looking at you Digimon Tri.
This is because endings are hard, and satisfying the imagined continuations of a thousand fans deeply and personally invested into a story is even harder. But we continue anyway, partly because it typically makes a lot of money, and partly because there is something deeply endearing to the passion we feel for these characters, and the want for one last journey. This want isn’t limited to the fans either, plenty of authors struggle to leave the universe they have invested so much of their life-- and, as Hemingway put it, blood--into.
When you give something everything you have saying goodbye is never an easy task.
Besides, very few of these endings end in definitive peace and happy ever afters. It is easy to imagine that Luke continued his battles against the dark side of the force long after the fall of the empire (okay, I realized there is a whole series of novels about this very thing, and now movies, but you get the point). Plenty of people also get bright eyes when talking about the possibility that Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character took up the mantle of Batman-- or, better yet, Nightwing-- after Bruce said goodbye to the nuclear ton of baggage hanging on his back at the end of Dark Knight Rises.
It is the stuff Fan Fiction is made of.
But does the possibility, or even probability, of adventure mean that a story must be told? Like any great writing rule, the answer is a infuriating shrug of the shoulders.
This brings me back to The Map of Days but before going forward I should address something. Up to this point--if anyone is still reading-- it might sound as if I don’t recommend the Peculiar Children series. This could not be farther from the truth. It is a wonderful series, with characters that have become some of my favorite ever, and settings that I will not soon forget. It is equal parts mystery, adventure, and romance. They are a unique blend of writing and found footage photography that is unlike anything I’ve seen in the medium-- even if I sometimes find the novelty of this unnecessary, as this is simply a taste issue. The writing by Ransom Riggs is also incredibly witty, intelligent, and at times as poetic as anything I have ever read regardless of genre or intended audience. It is a beautiful young adult series-- a tag that I fear might scare off some mature readers who are doing themselves a disservice by avoiding this series. That, however, is a whole other long winded tangent and must be saved for another time.
I also feel like I should mention that as of writing this I am only about a quarter of the way through The Map of Days, so while this idea might read as a critique of the novel, it is in fact only inspired by a thought I had reading the first few chapters. It would be entirely unfair to judge the book at this point, and it is very possible that my “problem” will be addressed completely by the final chapter.
This is also not a review of the book, but I will say this: Ransom Riggs has not forgotten how to write.
So this is it, my main course, surrounded by more dressing then I know what to do with, and a clear lack of the ability to “kill my darlings”, but first I should probably weeze on a little longer and give a little in-story context:
Jacob Portman is a normal kid who has a close relationship with his strange Polish Grandpa Portman. His grandpa is murdered by a strange shadow monster no one else can see, and Jacob is pulled into a mystery involving time loops, people with strange powers and abilities, the aforementioned shadow monsters, and a mysterious and frightening sect of the powered individuals who want to rule the secret world he stumbled into. This is all a very simplified, bare bones summary, and speaks nothing to character depth and subplots. In the end, Jacob and the crew go through three excellent adventures and save the day, then the series ends.
Or at least I thought so, but one day I go to Walmart to find The Map of Days on the shelf and excitedly, although with some confusion, purchase it. The story so far is about dealing with the aftermath of the ending to The Library of Souls and has teased a whole new adventure in America (the last story was in England).
I was struck by two things. First off, that the story focus, atleas plot wise, shifted from a journey and secret war, to something else entirely. The focus isn’t surviving and saving the ones they love against a threat that was present for three straight stories, it is now on building a new and better world for Peculiars with no obvious threat as of now-- though some, along with interesting plotlines, have been teased. The second thing that struck me is just how definitive the ending of the third book feels when considering everything set up in the novels that succeeded it. There is nothing in this new story that seems like a carry over from the first three novels aside from the obvious settings and character status quos.
Other stories have switched things up. Harry Potter is in Hogwarts for most of the series,the dangers and mysteries of the novels all encircle Hogwarts like the moons of some great gaseous planet, but the last novel is largely outside of the castle’s walls. Nowhere in the series does it feel like all of the story lines have been tied up neatly however, except for the actual end of the story.
It is a strange experience, for something to change so fundamentally and continue but not that uncommon, especially in television, where shows that refuse to quit reinvent themselves to the point that they are hardly recognizable from where they began.
Season One: Intimate Cop Drama
Season Fifty-Eight: The Moon Wars!
Another great example of this in film if the Fast and Furious movie series, which starts as a somewhat exaggerated look at the world of drag racing and has mutated into a story about superheroes and flying cars, I think...
It isn’t always bad, and that is same in the case of The Map of Days but I do wonder if it is necessary.
In our quest to continue the stories that have brought us so much happiness, I think we miss out on what made them bring us so much happiness to begin with. Maybe The Map of Days makes the change and a whole new world of possibilities open up to me. I don’t mean to say that all stories should stick to what got them here in the first place, but I think the decision to change needs to be intentional and purposeful beyond the reason of, “we can do it”.
Without this purpose I find myself wondering if there was any point to this. This iis definitely not a question you want a reader asking.
Don’t get me wrong either, this is not just a writing problem. This speaks to the human condition as a whole, and our difficulty to move past the days of old and enjoy the present. This is obvious in our obsession with “back in the day” and nostalgia. I am no different. I often find myself longing for a return to some long past time of lazy childhood fun instead of enjoying the present that I have been gifted. The problem with this is that we spend so much time wishing for something that has past us by that we forget to enjoy everything that the present--and the future-- has to offer. If we bury our head ostrich style into longing for the past for too long we can spend a whole life time wishing for a time that isn’t coming back instead of making new days and new memories we could cherish.
The same thing can be said about stories. If we spend so much of our energy and innovation trying to bring new life to old classics, we miss out on the chance of making something new and fantastic.
I think it's important that I point out one last time that I am not fundamentally opposed to continuing storylines past an original ending. I don’t argue that new ideas can be interesting, but when we try to shoehorn these new ideas into old boxes that is a problem. I think if a writer is going to pick up the reigns and ride again, it needs to be with the delicacy of a neurosurgeon, clear intention, and the constant question, “does this story need to be told?”
If the creator wants to continue a finished storyline, it should be because A) he or she has a new character arc idea that they need to write that is best handled by applying it to old characters and B) that there is a plot that is best served in this old universe, and applying it to a new universe (or group of characters) will not be as effective as using an old, completed story.
So what’s the alternative? First off, if you have a great new idea for a character arc that you want to explore, I think the obvious thing to do is to create new characters. I know it feels safer to stay in a universe that is already enjoyed by readers, but safe doesn’t make for the best stories. The reason those characters are so loved is because you dared to be bold to begin with.
Here is another crazy idea. Keep the universe, change the characters. If Ransom Riggs had a great story about exploring the wild west of America time loops, why did he have to bring back the characters from the first book, with their arcs completed, and shoe horn them back into this new adventure. It is possible--again, haven’t finished the story, this is not a review--that the story would have been far less restrictive if he had kept this familiar setting and introduced new characters.
A great example of this is in the young adult world is Leigh Bardugo, who tells most of her stories in the same fictional world, but uses new characters quite often. Another, far more literary example, is William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpa County, the fictional mississippi country where many of the authorial giant’s stories take place. Stephen King also does something familiar, returning often, or at least mentioning, shared locations in novels, and even sprinkling in old characters in the background of many of his stories.
Plot to me is less important, and is quite honestly the thing I care least about in a good story, but even still, the question remains. Does this great new plot idea need to be told under the established rules of the old story, or would a new setting remove restrictions and allow for innovations that would truly free the plot to be absolutely as engaging as possible?
If your answer to both of these questions is yes, the best place to service these character and plot ideas is in my old story, then by all means wipe off the dust and get to work. If not, you need to strongly consider leaving these old characters and stories alone, and giving a new cast and crew it's chance to shine.
It is entirely possible A Map of Days does this-- I don’t know. Again, the changes made me think of this idea, but the idea itself is not a criticism of a story I am not even close to finishing yet.
I should also mention that the series of novels that still exists only in my head and a few terribly crude rough drafts break this “rule”. I change fundamental aspects of the storyline with every new entry and tear through genres as quickly as someone sprinting through a second-hand bookstore.
The difference, I hope, is that this was intentional from the beginning. I change settings, characters, and major plot lines, but many of the character arcs, and a few of the plotlines bleed into each new story, ensuring that the reader knows that there is more to come until the final book hypothetically wraps everything up. My hope is that these stories and their characters do not morph into something unrecognizable because I made these changes with intention and purpose from the very beginning-- and I do have an ending in mind. I am not just treading water until I stumble into something, or am told to finish it, like many network TV shows that run well past their welcome.
Again, I am a hypocrite. Every writer is. There are a million rules to writing, each of which should never be broken, until they should. The secret to understanding this shifting code is that you must know the rules, have a purpose for breaking them, and then do so with respect and intention.
otherwise youll find yourself not capitalizing or using punctuation because it feels right with no real reason and people will call you pretentious and a hack and if you do manage to have a successful run you will bring back the story well after its ending because people want you to not because you have a story that requires it and you will either get lucky and make something people enjoy or everyone yourself included will end up having a bad taste in their mouth and your cherished story will at best have a entry that you everyone just ignores or worst youll tarnish some of the originals shine
That’s all I got.
Endings are hard.
LA is Editor-in-Chief and Head Writer at Lot 10 Underground. He is an avid Eagles fan and a weary Lakers one. He grew up sneaking through the halls of Hogwarts after dark with Harry and his more talented friends, stumbling along the dark walls of Rock Tunnel in Pokemon Red, storming through flood riddled ships with Master Chief, and questioning Goku's parenting techniques in DBZ. If you'd like to contact him, you can try an owl, but he prefers social media: