When reading any book, there’s an unavoidable spoiler: the number of pages left in the book!
Specifically, the number of remaining pages gives you a strong clue as to how the narrative is going to go. If you are only 25% of the way through a book, but the main character is dangling from a sheer cliff, odds are that the character is going to survive. This substantially reduces the tension. (Note: exceptions exist, such as Game of Thrones.)
This also applies to movies—if there’s still 90 minutes left in a film, you can be pretty sure that whatever plan the protagonists are up to is not going to resolve without any complications.
Here are two proposals to fix this “length spoiler” issue:
First Proposal: Add blank pages to a book to hide the location of the ending
Fortunately, we can easily maintain the narrative excitement and tension with just one weird trick! All that is necessary is:
1. For a book, pad out the book with a substantial number of blank or plot-irrelevant pages, so the reader won’t know where the plot ends. (This approach was inadvertently done in the third Lord of the Rings book (Return of the King) by J.R.R. Tolkien: the book’s plot ends at the 75% mark. It is then followed by an extensive set of appendices such as “Appendix D: Calendars: Shire Calendar for use in all years”).
2. For a movie, include many minutes (or hours!) of still frames at the end of the film, so that the the remaining length is not immediately obvious if you pause the video. (Or you could watch the movie on VHS.)
Second Proposal: Publish multiple variants of each book, with hasty resolutions
So the problem with the first proposal is that if a book is to follow certain narrative structures, we still know that certain things will happen—the hero won’t just stay home in the first act.
But with modern technology, we can now provide variants of books (and movies) where different events occur, prematurely ending the plot.
Then, the reader can’t use their meta-knowledge of how narratives are normally constructed—the book could end unpredictably at any time! (See the Conan-the-Barbarian-inspired example in Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: The blank pages hide the fact that the narrative actually ends on page 206. The savvy reader, seeing hundreds of remaining pages, probably assumes that the story is going to continue, but it is not so!
Additional Examples of “early book endings”:
The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien), alternative early ending:
There he lay, a vast red-golden dragon, fast asleep; thrumming came from his jaws and nostrils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slumber, until they roared up in an instant, incinerating the burgling hobbit before he could even recognize the danger.
~ THE END ~
(124 blank pages follow)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J.K. Rowling), alternative early ending
They inched toward the message, eyes fixed on a dark shadow beneath it. All three of them realized what it was at once, and leapt backward with a splash. Mrs. Norris, the caretaker’s cat, was hanging by her tail from the torch bracket. She was stiff as a board, her eyes wide and staring.
For a few seconds, they didn’t move. Then Ron said, “Let’s get out of here.”
Later, the trio transferred to a much less dangerous boarding school in New Hampshire.
~ THE END ~
(144 blank pages follow)
Solution to the main problem with this approach:
Since there will be dozens of variants of the book (with premature endings at different spots), different readers may actually get different versions of the book.
In order to prevent readers who got one of the “early ending” copies of the book from being unsatisfied with the book due to the poor conclusion, the publisher would make the second half of the book available online for free, so that even the unlucky readers can still experience the full narrative.
Fig 2: An example of how the narrative could be constructed. Perhaps point “F” is the book’s original ending: now we just need to hire a few fan fiction authors to fill out endings A, B, C, D, E, J, G, H, and I, and we’ll have all the benefits of a Choose Your Own Adventure (™) book with the literary merits of the finest fiction.
Note that this specific example may be overly expensive due to the extremely early divergence in plot between the (A, B, C, D, E) branch and the (F, G, J, I, J) branch. For economic reasons, probably only one of those branches should be included—otherwise there are essentially two totally different books being written here.
Current state of the art:
The application of divergent and/or user-selected narratives has been long neglected, with the only recent noteworthy examples being the Shakespeare-inspired “Romeo And/Or Juliet” (http://romeoandorjuliet.com/) and “To Be or Not To Be” (Hamlet) (https://www.amazon.com/Be-Not-Ryan-North/dp/0982853742), both by Ryan North of “Dinosaur Comics” fame.
PROS: Adds much-needed dramatic tension to formulaic plots!
CONS: Does not work with non-fiction.