Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How the ending begins

Writing the ending to a mystery novel is always a challenge. When I first started working on mysteries, I would have a beginning in mind and an idea for what would happen at the end. Not exactly how it would happen, but a pretty good feel for the ultimate fate of the characters.

The more books I write, the more it all becomes a big mystery for me. About all I know for sure is that the bad guy or gal, maybe guys and gals, will get their comeuppance at the end. Since I’m learning the story along with my protagonist(s), I’m occasionally as surprised as they are at what occurs.

In listening to a bunch of panels at the SleuthFest conference in Florida last weekend, I found that most of the author panelists felt it best to plot out your mystery in advance. Maybe I’m too lazy, but I’ve never managed to do that.

I start out with a scenario for some kind of criminal enterprise that results in murder. I people it with characters who have a stake in the outcome, some innocent and some guilty as Obama’s tax dodgers. I write a character sketch for each of them. In that process, I learn from their backgrounds and actions how they’ll fit into the plot.

Then I start writing with an eye toward the ultimate solution to the crime and its resulting case of homicide. By that time I normally know whodunit, though in at least one case I changed the murderer in the middle of the book.

As the story moves closer to the final act, I begin looking for ways to get my protagonist in really big trouble. That’s when the fun begins. It can’t be a simple step up to the guilty party, show a weapon, and demand the surrender. The good guy must find himself in mortal danger before he manages to turn things around.

I’d like to cite some examples of how I do that, but I ain’t givin’ nothin’ away. You’ll have to read the books to find out. Some of them have surprise endings, particularly the one where I switched killers. A few readers said they thought I had cheated until they went back and saw where I had laid the foundation for what happened.

My new book, The Surest Poison, has a bit of a twist at the end I haven’t used before. I hope you like it. Go to Poison.htm for links to ordering the book.


Helen Ginger said...

I hear quite a few authors who write that way. It definitely seems to work well for you!

Anonymous said...

It's good that you think these things through! There have been a few books I've read where the ending was so lame it completely ruined the whole book for me. Nothing worse than a contrived, crippled, or boring ending!