The End. It’s a hell of a way to start anything – but the end is only secondary in importance to the beginning of a story. If the opening ‘hook’ is the thing that draws you in, and keeps you reading those early pages, then the end is the part that most readers are likely to remember.
Sometimes the story even starts with the end; Henning Mankell once commented that he’s occasionally begun with a final scene and then written towards it. If it’s good enough for the creator of Wallander, then it’s good enough for me. I began my first novel with the climax.
The rest of the process of writing The Defector - all eight drafts of it - was figuring out who those people were and how they got there. But the question I’m really interested in here is not whether anyone should start writing a book from the final scene, rather; it’s what do we, the reader, want from the end? The normal answer is that a good ending should make sense of all that went before, and in the words of the screenwriting guru William Froug; ‘It is that which nothing need follow.’
Endings tend to come in two parts, starting with the climax that any good book has been working towards. In the thriller or mystery genre that I work in, this is almost invariably some sort of action scene; the classic version being one where the hero battles the villain and wins (happy ending) or loses (sad ending).
The climax is followed by the denouement, where the plot is resolved and the loose ends are tied up – this is the bit where sense is made of all that went before. In a mystery novel we obviously need to know who did it, but many people will also want to know how they did it, and why they did it. And maybe we need to know why the girlfriend helped or betrayed them, or why the best friend or mother protected or abandoned them...
It’s a slippery slope and the classic storyteller’s error is too much denouement, particularly when it comes via ‘Basil Exposition’. This is the over-familiar scene where the police detective or private dick explains to a room (conveniently filled with everyone involved) all the various plot strands.
The upside of this sort of ending is that all the i's are dotted and all the t's are crossed. There’s no frustration, no looking for more explanation where there is none. Unfortunately, there’s no surer way to kill the emotional impact of a good climax than too much denouement, particularly if it comes with too much exposition. So for me the tricky part of Froug’s ‘that which nothing need follow’ is figuring out precisely where that point lies.
I’m of a minimalist tendency – I like to be left with a few things to ponder. If I’m still thinking about a book a couple of days after finishing it, then to me that’s the clearest indication that it was a good one. And that’s unlikely if everything has been tidied up into a neat pile, and then wrapped in silver paper with bows on it.
In both of my own thrillers I set the main character a moral dilemma, presenting them with a decision, one that threatens the people that they most love. The hero spends much of my first two books trying to dodge or wriggle out of making the critical choices, but ultimately (and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything for anyone here) there’s no escape.
And once that final decision was made, then as far as I was concerned you could stick a fork in it - the book was done. The denouements in both books are short and to the point. I felt that there was little more to say – the central character’s climactic choice said it all. Everything else flowed from there - but that’s just me and it’s not to everyone’s taste, including my original editor at Random House. Oh, the battles we fought over the end of The Defector...
So, cryptic, explicative or somewhere in between, how do you like your books to end?
The Wrecking Crew