Wednesday, April 12, 2023

More thoughts on endings

 First of all, a note to Johnny, who recently posted his final blog. Thanks for the great job, you will be missed, and you are welcome back any time!

I too like to read the other posts on the blog. They often make me think or consolidate what I am already thinking. Recent posts have been about how to end a book, and the various discussions are fascinating. I'm with Thomas on this one. If you finish a mystery by letting the "bad guy" win or without even revealing who they are, that's your prerogative, but I am going to be annoyed and it's my prerogative to never read another book of yours.

But the devil is in the details. When I give workshops or write articles on writing a good mystery, I start off by listing what I consider the four essential elements of a good story. This applies to almost any story but more especially to crime fiction. 

1. A character worth caring about.

2. A question worth asking.

3. Three hundred pages of complications.

4. An answer that satisfies.

These are not original ideas – most books on writing agree on the essentials – but I like the precision and economy of my list. The elements are connected to and flow from each other. At least one character has to be worth rooting for so that the reader (and the writer) cares what happens to them, and the core quest of the book should be in some way connected to that character. The question should not be shallow and trivial, but have a deeper universal resonance that the reader (and writer) can relate to and care about. 

Finally, the ending... Now matter what else happens at the resolution, the ending should answer that question. If your book is about trying to conquer Mount Everest and the reader has followed you through crisis after crisis – near deaths from avalanches, altitude sickness, and blizzards – you better not end the story a hundred feet from the summit. You can kill them during the trip, you can even kill them as they're touching the summit pyramid, but unless you answer the core question Will they conquer Mount Everest or not?, the story doesn't work. 

The second part of #4 is trickier. What does "satisfies" mean? I mean it satisfies both the question (in that it answers it) and the reader. Real life is messy, goodness and justice often do not triumph, and if you're writing a gritty, realistic story, it's realistic that the end would be messy and the justice would not be tied up with a pretty Hollywood bow. I believe readers don't want to see the "bad guy" caught as much as they want justice served. In  stories where moral issues and good/ evil demarcations are not clearcut, justice may involve the villain walking away with the blessing of the hero. As long as the story is well written so the reader can see the justice in it, it will be satisfying.

Less often, the ending does not even clearly answer whodunit it but leaves the answer ambiguous – the Lady or the Tiger ending. Some readers like these endings, and some hate them. It leaves room for debate and moral questioning, but to me, these endings only work if the author hints at the probable answer and gives the impression that the hero will figure it out, or if justice is served in one way or another, no matter who pays the official cost.

I have used both these less orthodox endings in different books, but always with the belief that they suited the story and made it richer. There are many ways to challenge moral certitude and reflect messy reality without resorting to pretentious or contrarian gimmicks. In the Everest story, if the reader knows the character has the skill to climb the final hundred feet, or if the reader knows the biggest challenge has already been met, ending before the top may actually avoid cliches and melodrama.

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