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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ending With Resonance

Someone once said that the first line of a novel sells the book, but it’s the last line that sells the next. A profound bit of wisdom that is too often ignored.

The ending of your book – the part where your reader gets the pay off for the time she’s invested – is the single most critical element toward ensuring your success as a writer. It certainly is if you define success as continuing to write. And in no other genre is the ending as important as in the mystery/suspense novel. (For our purposes we will roll the two genres into one). But more significantly, you want your ending to resonate with your reader; to touch her in a way that causes the book to come to mind long after she’s finished.

I had the honor of having a reviewer say that long after he had read one of my books, he was sitting between dives in Belize, and Colton Parker was still on his mind. Now, that’s resonance. It’s easy to recognize, but difficult to achieve. Difficult, but not impossible.

So how do you reach that lofty peak? What can you do to ensure that your readers remember your work long after the last page has been turned? Perhaps the best place to start is with the snares to avoid. And for that, let’s begin with The Sopranos.

In the ground-breaking television drama, the writers worked very hard to make the name of the show synonymous with mob hits, underhanded dealings, and the never ending quest for power. In other words, they wanted drama. Unfortunately, judging from the opinions of many – this writer included - they dropped the ball when the series ended, leaving some bitter emotions in their once faithful following.

Did Tony get whacked? Did he walk? Was he arrested? Who knows? Perhaps just as disconcerting as far as the show’s writers are concerned, who cares? The lackluster final episode left the answers to these questions as elusive as the evidence of Tony’s crimes. Why? Because the writers didn’t tie up the loose ends, the first of several pitfalls that can wreck your chance at resonance.

Remember, your readers want to know what happened. Who did the crime? Will they do the time? Why was she killed? What was the motive? All of these have to be answered. And they have to be answered in a satisfying way.

In her book Writing the Modern Mystery, Barbara Norville states that your first line (she refers to it as The Opening Gambit) should be designed to get the reader on the hook. Your last line, however, should be designed to let them off. Without that, you’ll have readers who will walk away unsatisfied, unhappy, and unlikely to read your next book. Not exactly the things of which writing careers are made.

Another error to avoid is lack of emotion. You must remember that your readers have put their trust in you. They’ve allowed you to take them along for a ride that promised to be exciting and suspenseful, and they’ve chosen your book over the myriad of other possibilities. They want to live vicariously through your characters. They want to know all that happens, but more importantly, they want to feel every emotion along the way; every up and down, every toss and turn that occurs. So when the ending comes, and the payoff is doled out, you want them to feel that too. Simply having your detective recite the facts won’t work. Your readers need to feel the satisfying emotion that comes when the victim receives justice. They need to feel that all is well with the world (your fictional world, anyway) and they want to have empathy for your characters. To feel tied to them, to have a stake in the outcome. If you rob your readers of that, they won’t be your readers for long.

Another thing to avoid like a mob hit list is to fail at playing fair. This is one snare that has entrapped many would-be mystery novelists.

Let’s say, for example, you have the case coming to a conclusion. The detective is standing in the drawing room (drawing rooms exist in cozy type mysteries. In novels like mine, the sleuth is most likely standing in a dark, rain-soaked alley) and all of the potential suspects are gathered. A muddy foot print is found outside the window through which the perpetrator entered the house, and one of the individuals in the parlor has mud on his shoes. In the eyes of everyone but the detective, the man with the muddy shoe is guilty. But alas, our detective who is knowledgeable in the science of biomechanics states: “This man cannot be the guilty party. Notice that he supinates with a heel inversion that is greater than thirty degrees. Our foot print outside the window is from someone who pronates with a heel strike that is everted to greater than twenty.”

Huh uh. This is bad. If you do something like that - withhold knowledge from your reader or drop an unforeseeable bomb in their lap - they’ll close the book on you for good.

When they pick up your mystery your readers see your story as more than entertainment. They see it as a personal challenge. This applies even to those mysteries that aren’t traditional puzzles. When you set up the crime and plant the clues, you’re dropping the gauntlet. So it isn’t fair to require your reader to see something you didn’t reveal, or they couldn’t possibly have been expected to know. In other words, it just ain’t fair.

And finally (although by no means the last word on the subject) be sure that your ending is consistent with the theme of your story.

Oh yes, your book will have a theme. It is the unifying message that ties all of your elements together. But if your theme is violence is wrong, and then your passive detective blows the perpetrator away, you’ve stepped off the curb. Your reader will be confused and the chord you wanted to strike in them will fall as flat as an accordion under the wheels of the Orient Express.

So then, what can you do to increase the likelihood that your writing will satisfy your readers and remain with them long after they’re done?

To start, you can turn the above don’ts into dos.

For example, do tie up the loose ends. If you have a character that appeared in the book, let us know what happened to him. If someone died, why? If you had a subplot (I’m actually being rather generous here. You MUST have a subplot), then tie it into the main plot at the book’s end. Oh, and by the way, the two plots should center on the same theme and should result in your protagonist coming out of the story a better person. In other words, he ought to have learned something by having gone through the trial he’s just experienced.

Another don’t that you can turn into a do is in remembering to play fair. Now this doesn’t mean you need to point your reader’s nose in the direction of every clue and away from every red herring. But it does mean that your reader ought to see, and know, everything that your detective sees, even if the reader doesn’t recognize them at the time. In fact, your sleuth may not recognize the importance of the clue either, although he must be able to reasonably deduce its significance later. When that deduction has occurred, your reader ought to breathe an audible, of course.

When writing the mystery you should never see your work as sub-literature. Genre fiction has every right – and every obligation – to address the human condition. Your work, as well as your ending, should address at least one of our common human frailties; love, anger, revenge, or despair. These are emotions that we’ve all experienced and will experience again. But if you use these elements as the framework for your story, you must also remember to include them at the end. Remember, you must engage your reader emotionally. Since they will not feel the rain on their cheek or the recoil of the gun in their hand, you must give them all you can to draw them into the story. Strumming their emotions is the best route I know.
But after you’ve tapped their emotional involvement, what then?

Presumably, you have something to say about the human condition. So why not use your reader's emotions (not to mention all of your hard work) and take them to the place you want them to go?

For example, in The Godfather we have a story that is about the human cost of pursuing the wrong things. At the end of part I, we see that Sonny is dead, Don Corleone is dead, and his son Michael has become everything that his father didn’t want him to be.

At the end of part II, Michael has become estranged from his wife, has had his brother murdered, and is sitting alone – isolated – as the credits roll. Of course in part III, having failed in his attempts to go legit, Michael sees his daughter slain in front of him, and eventually dies alone as an old man hiding in Sicily. Despite the treachery with which he has lived his life, we can feel sympathy for Michael. After all, haven’t we all pursued the wrong things? And hasn’t our emotional involvement in the story led us to the conclusion that Mr. Puzo wanted us to reach?

In King Kong, we initially fear for Fay Wray’s safety as the gorilla has her in his clutches. But when Kong escapes from the public display into which he’s been placed, and climbs the Empire State building as he tries to protect her from the airplanes and their machine guns, we begin to alter our sympathy. Then, when he is eventually shot dead, we hear the famous line, “It was beauty that killed the beast”. How true. And how consistent with the writer’s theme.

Kong didn’t invade our world, we invaded his. Therefore, man is the most dangerous animal and that means we’re a danger to each other. The writers played on our emotions to take us to the place (conclusion) they wanted us to reach. Now, whether you agree with their point or not, they were consistent with their theme and the movie continues to resonate with viewers more than seventy years later.

And finally, have something to say and say it – clearly. Our writing is often muddled when poor word choices are made and inconsistent thoughts are transcribed. One of the best books on the subject I’ve read is: Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun. But be forewarned. Being clear in your writing can be difficult. But then, who said any of this was easy.

Of course, as an adjunct to keeping your writing clear, Hemingway’s advice to “kill your darlings” (or as Stephen King once wrote, “When it comes to people, mercy killing is against the law. When it comes to fiction, it is the law.”) still stands. In other words, whatever doesn’t serve your story, whatever interferes with your chance at a clearly written and satisfying novel, regardless of how much you like it, must die.

Now that we’ve looked at some of the elements that can enhance your novel’s ending, please don’t be fooled. Despite the observations we’ve made, writing an ending that will resonate with readers is not easy. Hard work is involved and it is often our own laziness that prevents us from doing the thinking necessary in achieving that literary ideal. But by reaching it, we can be confident that our readers will continue to be our readers for a long time to come. And after all, that is the goal. Isn’t it?

Brandt Dodson


Blogger kc said...

Very inspiring, Brandt. Thanks!

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Janice Olson said...

Great mini-course with outstanding advice. Thanks for the great article.
I also enjoyed your class at ACFW.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Dayle James Arceneaux said...

Great refresher, Brandt.

p.s. Regarding your first line:

"The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book."

- Mickey Spillane

7:52 PM  
Blogger Cabbie said...

Thank you for this very good advice! As a writer, this was something I needed to hear.

8:05 PM  
Anonymous Derric Peterson said...

Quite nice! Thank you!

8:59 AM  

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