Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Leaping into the abyss

John's post of last Thursday struck a chord. For me, writing the end is one of the most challenging aspects of creating a novel. Some people struggle with the mushy middle - pacing, twists, how to fill 200 more exciting pages. However, for those of us who fly by the seat of our pants, figuring out how to end the book is what keeps us up at night and fuels many an argument on a solitary walk.

There are actually two parts to the end: the climax, when the hero solves the crime and catches the killer, and the denouement, where everything is explained and loose ends are tied up. Gone are the days of the sleuth gathering everyone in the library (or courtroom) and talking to one suspect to another until he reveals the killer. Nowadays, even in gentler cosy mysteries, readers expect some drama to keep them on the edge of their seats. The climax is usually an action scene that pits hero against villain.

When I write a novel, I don't know whodunnit, why, or how the hero is going to figure it out. I plow ahead from scene to scene, unrolling more twists and complications and putting more balls up in the air. About two-thirds of the way along, I start to panic. Enough complications and balls up in the air! How am I going to land this sucker? I need to keep the hero (and the readers) in the dark, chasing suspects and red herrings, until the last possible minute, when they have an epiphany and go after the right suspect. I also need to have them capture that suspect in a reasonably dramatic scene, to keep the excitement and suspense going to the final moment.

It's a very intricate, high-stakes dance that requires quite a few pieces to come together in exactly the right way. Sometimes I don't even know for sure who my villain is until the final climax, when I have an epiphany of my own. As in "Ahah! This is the perfect villain to pull the whole story together!" Oh, the stress of standing on the edge of the abyss, knowing the end of your novel waits on the other side but with no idea what it is and how you're going to get there. Or indeed whether there is another side.

Tying up loose ends actually plays a role in figuring out the climax. Loose ends are those dozens of balls I have thrown up in the air during the story. Each one of them is a question that need to be answered. Sometimes after days of pacing in front of the abyss, asking "What do I do now?", I list all those questions on a sheet of paper and stare at them, like pieces of a puzzle, asking how they can best fit together, do I need them all, and what if I do this instead of that. Usually out of all this hair-pulling and what if's, the kernel of a solution emerges. A key piece, around which I can start to fit the others.

Once I've written this hopefully spectacular climax, I breathe again. I have a book. Rewrites will focus it, sharpen it, and get rid of the inconsistencies and rough bits. But it works! After this, the denouement is a time to breathe again, to address most the questions as yet unanswered and to hint at the future. The hope is to leave the reader satisfied with the story rather than thinking "But what about...", but also intrigued enough by the characters and the lingering questions to pick up the next book. 


Eileen Goudge said...

I’m a hybrid. A cross between plotter and pantser. Usually I start with a plot, then stray off the reservation into the wilds halfway through. Always a surprise what comes out of my fevered brain.

Barbara Fradkin said...

I love what comes out of my fevered brain, Eileen, which is why I don't really outline. It feels like paint-by-number painting. I find I do have to do some planning a few scenes ahead so that things fit together, but I never know the end. Thanks for the comment!

Donis Casey said...

The end is incredibly more important that most people think! That's what makes the stakes so high.

Charlotte Hinger said...

But there has to be an end. Honestly, I don't know what has come over some writers. Maybe you can get away with a beginning, a middle, and a middle in a literary novel. But a mystery? No way.