Tied Up with a Bow

boy“A writer only begins a book.
A reader finishes it.”
−Samuel Johnson

I hear the question regarding On My Honor more than with any of my other books: “But what happens next?”

I have, in fact, been asked that so many times about On My Honor that I’ve begun recommending an assignment: You tell me what happens next. Write Chapter 13. (The book has twelve chapters.)

For those who might not know the story, a quick plot summary . . . Joel asks his father for permission to go on an outing with his friend Tony, an outing Joel doesn’t want to be part of but doesn’t have the courage to refuse. Joel’s father, not understanding what is at stake, disappoints Joel by giving permission, and the two boys go. They end up swimming in a forbidden river where Tony, the more daring of the two, drowns. Joel, frightened and guilty and furious with his father for not protecting him from this terrible situation, returns home and, at first, doesn’t tell anyone what has happened. When he finally tells the truth, he also accuses his father, expecting some terrible punishment that will bring the world down around him and somehow make things “right.” What he gets is his father’s unwavering presence, a reconciliation that gives the story its only possible resolution.

Many teachers have passed my assignment for a Chapter 13 on to their classes, and sometimes they send their students’ new endings to me. I read them with a sense of discovery. So this is what happens! Because I don’t have a clue myself. I have never spent five minutes pursuing the question, no matter how often others pose it. The story, for me, ends with Joel in his father’s arms, with Joel and his father finding a way to be together in the face of the tragedy neither of them can repair. That is the resolution my heart longs for and what happens beyond that seems incidental. What happens beyond that moment is life, not story.

I knew, of course, that much in the story remained “unfinished,” but that was exactly the way I wanted it to be. If I had answered all the questions I have heard from young readers over the years, On My Honor would have become a different story. And in a curious way it would have belonged less to my readers and more to me. By not answering those questions, I leave it to them to carry Joel away with them. If all had been resolved, tied up neatly with a bow, they would have found it much easier to put Joel down and forget him.

Readers come away from On My Honor wanting, sometimes quite desperately, to know what will happen next. They want to attend Tony’s funeral. They want to return to school with Joel in the fall to see how the boys’ friends will receive him. They want to follow him into his life to see how he will manage without Tony. All of that could form the basis for another story, of course. It just doesn’t happen to be a story that calls to me.

One piece of On My Honor, however, remains unresolved in a way that I didn’t intend. If I could write the novel again, I would have Tony’s body discovered. In the first draft, I did have a chapter in which the body was brought back, but Joel’s reaction to seeing his friend was so strong that I dropped the chapter. I thought it might steal power from the final scene between father and son. The problem with having done that is that some young readers finish the book still expecting Tony to be discovered, alive and well. They probably have never read a story before in which a main character dies, especially someone their own age, and so they are distracted by hope and miss the story’s true resolution.

If I had realized that might happen, I would have answered that question more firmly. I could easily have had the body discovered off stage so that the death would have been certain without creating a distractingly too-strong moment.

But the rest? I am convinced it is the unanswered questions that give On My Honor its resonance.

I believe it is the unanswered questions that give most stories their resonance.

And that’s why I rarely tie up my stories with a bow.