Aha! Achieving That Delightful and Inevitable Ending by Martha Reed
A successful mystery story has two bookends: hooking the reader with an emotional response at the beginning and providing a satisfying payoff at the end. Sounds simple enough, right? But skip the first part and the reader will find a reason not to finish it. Skip the second bit and they’ll close the book feeling cheated and unsatisfied. What’s a writer to do?
Suspense and mystery stories are like a puzzle containing secrets hidden within secrets. Authors are sleight-of-hand magicians, serving up surprises and twists until the final and amazing reveal. But, if there are only seven basic plotlines and story archetypes, how do authors continue to build stories that still delight and amaze astute mystery readers? How can we keep our readers alert and our stories fresh?
I start by building stories as word architecture. Once I’ve laid in the initial pieces of the story (e.g., characters, short- and long-term goals, plot points, and twists) I begin weaving in clues, red herrings, and foreshadowing.
According to the brilliant short story writer, Art Taylor: “But an ending … you’re balancing various strands of a story by that point, working against a reader’s predictions and expectations, trying to make sure your resolution is both surprising and inevitable.”
Presenting a solid and inevitable truth at the story’s end is what has a satisfied reader sitting back in their chair, slapping their foreheads, and saying, “Of course!” A perfect example is what A. Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes throughout “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”
How can a writer achieve a surprising and inevitable ending?
- Foreshadow the twists into the story’s first paragraphs or section. The reader hasn’t grasped the story’s narrative yet, so slipping in subtle clues unconsciously sets up their expectations while still keeping those clues under the front-of-their-mind radar.
- Clearly state each character’s personal stake in the outcome. If a character doesn’t have a personal stake, boot them out. (You can nicely save them for a different story later.)
- Use a surprise twist and up the stakes on all characters.
- Use another twist and up the stakes again.
- Mid-story, start using shorter sentences and more succinct dialogue to pick up the pace which will also increase the suspense.
- In the final third of the story, offer a logical denouement that the reader has already anticipated from the story’s setup. They will feel disappointment that they figured it out so easily. The important thing here is that they are hooked into feeling an emotional response.
- Then present a final and inevitable twist. The final twist triggers a new and better emotion, delighted surprise.
How do writers create a final and inevitable twist? This prompt has been working for me:
- Identify a short-term goal for each character and share these goals with the reader as part of the general exposition. Short-term goals should be stated and obvious since they reveal each character’s desires which drives their actions.
- Identify a hidden long-term goal for each character. Insert and layer these hidden desires into the story in dialogue and internal monologue. Here’s a trick: Present these goals in a character’s unanswered aside because that’s how conversation naturally works. Not every aside gets an answer, but it will plant the character’s long-term goal suggestion in the reader’s mind while adding character depth and insight.
- The final inevitable twist is generally wrapped up in the protagonist’s hidden long-term goal. If you’ve layered in enough long-term clues earlier in the story, the final twist becomes inevitable.
One last suggestion on developing a final and inevitable twist is to consider using the opposite of what the protagonist’s hidden long-term goal is. This final twist may end up surprising even you, the writer.
Martha Reed is the IPPY Book Award-winning author of the John and Sarah Jarad Nantucket Mysteries and of “Love Power,” her latest mystery set in the spellbinding city of New Orleans featuring Gigi Pascoe, a transgender sleuth.
She’s an active member of the Florida Gulf Coast and Guppy chapters of Sisters in Crime, a member of Mystery Writers of America, and in a moment of great personal folly she joined the New Orleans Bourbon Society (N.O.B.S.)
Her stories and articles have appeared in Pearl, Suspense Magazine, Spinetingler, Mystery Readers Journal, Mysterical-e, and in “Lucky Charms – 12 Crime Tales,” an anthology produced by the Mary Roberts Rinehart Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Her story, “The Honor Thief” was included in the 2021 Bouchercon anthology, “This Time For Sure,” edited by Hank Phillippi-Ryan.
Martha adores travel, big jewelry, California wine country, and simply great coffee. She delights in the ongoing antics of her family, fans, and friends who she lovingly calls The Mutinous Crew. You’re invited to follow her on Facebook and Twitter @ReedMartha.