Thursday, May 29, 2014

Surprise Endings

I am — hopefully — nearing the end of the novel I’m writing. I did a lot (for me) of pre-writing on this one, not an outline, as such, but 3,000 words of notes. I don’t know exactly how the novel will end, but I know who wins, who loses, and what I want to have the reader experience at the novel’s conclusion.

I swapped books with one of my heros, John Irving, a few weeks back. He read This One Day and sent a complimentary note, pointing to the ending — a real thrill for me, as you can imagine. As a reader, I like to read Whydunits; I don’t care how early I know who the antagonist is, but I enjoy learning the psychological motivations behind the crime. And I always want an ending I didn’t anticipate. As one would expect, I try to give readers the same thing in my own books.

Which brings me to where I am now — 65,000 words into the 2015 novel featuring Peyton Cote, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent and a single mom. I know Who and Why. Now I’m working on the ending. I never usually know exactly how the book will end until I get there, which is wonderfully pleasing (I’m the story’s first reader) and gut-wrenching (what if I swing and miss?).

There’s a difference between knowing Who and Why and even How — and ending the novel in a surprising and satisfying way. You must offer a “play fair” conclusion — 1 + 1 must equal 2. Yet passionate crime readers demand more. Perhaps James Hall, best-selling mystery author and professor of creative writing at Florida International University, said it best:

“Writing a novel of suspense,” Hall said in an issue of January Magazine, “I've discovered, is a far greater challenge than writing a mainstream, ‘respectable’ novel, in which nothing much needs to happen for a lot of pages. I think this genre has attracted some of the best novelists of our era, mainly because it’s a form that demands great discipline and forces good writers to stretch themselves in all sorts of ways.”

My readers will demand an ending that they never saw coming but should have. It’s also an ending that I'll enjoy reading first.


Unknown said...

This is absolutely the toughest part of writing a mystery, in my opinion. And one that seemingly can't be taught. Just have to keep goading those "girls in the garage" (my equivalent of Stephen King's "boys in the basement" to produce something fabulous!

Rick Blechta said...

I think you're bang on that there are some things in writing that just need talent. Sure, you can be shown the way (or figure it out yourself) but when the ideas hit the paper (real or virtual), there is a good bit of instinct that comes into play -- and that's something that really can't be taught if it's not there to some degree.

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