About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

Why Are So Many
Historicals So Bad?

By PJ Parrish

My post today is going to sound a bit crabby, and for that I apologize. Okay, here goes: . I am not a big fan of historical fiction. I know there are many many truly great historicals out there, and a few remain among my favorites — Shogan, Beloved, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Underground Railroad, Perfume.

I’ve got my favorites from the historical mystery shelf as well — The Name of the Rose, The Alienist, Child 44, The Eye of the Needle, among others. I’m not a total philistine.

But most historicals I’ve tried leave me cold. And for the life of me, I can’t quite figure out why. I think it is because too many just try too hard to impress with…details.

Research is, as all writers know, very seductive. And sometimes, it shows.

To my mind, the best historical novels, first and foremost, explore the great themes of what we like to call popular fiction―crime, family, passion, betrayal― set against well rendered backdrops. The not-so-best of these, on the other hand, let the historical details overwhelm the story, choking the characters in layers of crinoline, stiff collar stays and stilted dialogue.

I’m crabby about this, I think, because the contest I am judging right now for a writers conference is coughing up a lot of historicals this week. I’m drowning in miladies, malingering lords, and gagging on the “sulphuric aroma” of gunpowder and the “foul hint” of stale tobacco. These manuscripts are far from bad; they are well crafted. But they are also boring because nothing is happening. And it’s not happening in numbing historically accurate detail.

I am also reading two historicals right now, and both are somewhat disappointing. I got Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale for Christmas because the gifter knew how much I loved the TV series A French Village, a superb soaper set in a Nazi-occupied village. Hannah’s book is mildly diverting so far, but the 1939 France setting comes off a little post-cardy and I feel like I’ve met these characters somewhere before.

The second book I’m reading is Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions. I love anything this man writes, truly. Two poor brothers struggle to survive in 1909 Spokane. Exquisitely detailed in its research and setting with a carnival parade of quirky characters. The writing is dazzling. Yet the book is very put-downable. I’m almost half-through and the story itself just isn’t gelling as a whole. It’s more picaresque than well-plotted.

So all this has me wondering why some historicals captivate while others capsize. I don’t have the answer, folks. I actually have written two historicals — fat family sagas with love and sex, one set in post-earthquake San Francisco, and another set in Belle Epoque Paris. You can find them both on Amazon for about a buck a piece. Heck, let me know and I will give you a copy. I have lots left.

My late friend Jerry Healy once quipped that I still write historicals because my Louis Kincaid mystery series is set in the Eighties. And yes, I had to be careful with my research as to when cell phones and DNA arrived, little stuff like that. But research never got in my way.

Maybe that’s all it comes down to — not letting the grinding machinery of research gunk up your plot or drown out what your characters are saying.

In 2003, Dennis Lehane was red hot. His Kenzie-Gennaro series had established his mystery cred. His blockbuster stand alone Mystic River was coming out as a movie. He had just published Shutter Island.  Where does a guy go from there?

He took a couple years off and in 2008 came out with The Given Day. It was a magnum opus historical set in post-war Boston. It clocked in at 720 pages. The New York Times called it “intensely researched” and I don’t know if that was a compliment. I found The Given Day hard going. It’s ambitious, sprawling and almost promiscuously sensual in its style, as in this sentence:

Lying together in the smell of flowers and the constant threat of a rain that never fell, as the ships left for Europe, as the patriots rallied in the streets, as a new world seemed to sprout between them even quicker than the blooming flowers, Danny knew the relationship was doomed.

I didn’t finish the book. After The Given Day, Lehane decided to go back to his Kenzie-Gennaro series with Mooonlight Mile. He told a British interviewer, about returning to genre fiction: “It’s ten years later, and it scares me. Do I still have that looseness? [The genre books] had an ignorance about them, and I wonder if I can recapture that now that I’ve flirted with self-importance.”

Two years later, Lehane came out Live By Night. It’s a slimmed-down sequel to The Given Day, with the spotlight lazer-trained on one character Joe Coughlin. It has the same beautiful Lehane writing, but the ease is back. Here’s the opening paragraph.

Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watch the water turn white at the stern. And it occurred to him that almost everything of note that had happened in his life — good and bad — had been set in motion the morning he first crossed paths with Emma Gould.

The history is there in this gritty gangster yarn. The research is there, but now it’s background music for Joe Coughlin’s solo. Lehane finally won the Edgar that he should have gotten for Mystic River. I loved this book. Couldn’t put it down. It broke my heart in the end.

Okay, thanks for letting me vent today. I feel less crabby now, and am going to give Jess and Kristin more time to win me over. History doesn’t have to be drag.

Would love to hear some of you weigh in who are more learned in historical fiction than I am. What did you read that worked? What fell short and why?

Such a Deal!
Bundling Your Ebooks

By PJ Parrish

My husband does the grocery shopping in our house. He’s a sucker for buy-one-get-one free. He can’t resist, bless his little hunting-and-gathering heart. I just did a tour of our closets and pantry. We have four bottles of Gardini’s Caesar Dressing, three six-packs of Swiss Miss cocoa mix, five cans of Edge shaving cream, six bags of Greenie dog treats and 52 rolls of toilet paper.

The other day, after hitting the garden section at Home Depot, I popped the trunk to load in my mulch only to find the trunk stuffed with four 8-roll packs of Bounty paper towels. He knows we have no room for this in our small house, and this is a bit of a marital turf war, but he can’t help himself. Why buy just one if you can get three at a great price?

Okay, he did come home the other day with four bottles of my favorite pinot. It was buy-one-get-one day at Publix. Wine can go a long ways to soothing the savage wife.

Who can resist a real bargain? Buy-one-get-one-free packaging is a time-honored ploy to hook customers. Musicians have been onto this since the Great Vinyl Age. TV specials and movies are routinely packaged as one box-set either as physical discs or streaming options. (Being a Luddite, I treasure my CD box-set of the complete original Star Trek).

I realize this post isn’t for everyone. But if you already have some books out there, you might considering bundling. Bundled books can stoke new interest in old titles, especially if you a series, because readers love to move easily from one book to the next. Or perhaps, you’ve written books on one subject — like our own James here does with his series on fiction craft. Even if you’re still slaving away on that first book, file this away for the future marketing option.

I’m writing about this today only because my sister Kelly and I have finally gotten around to doing this. Today marks the debut of our first bundle in our Louis Kincaid series. I don’t usually go in for blatant self-promotion, but even if you don’t buy it, go check it out just to see if it might work for you.

We’re able to do this because we finally have the rights back to almost every book in our series. We’ve redesigned and self-published all the titles as ebooks and trade paperbacks, but we’re banking on the idea that a bargain bundle might stoke sales and reap new readers. Our plan is the bundle three titles at a time over the next couple months.

Okay, so what do you have to do to get this off the ground? My sister Kelly is going to answer here because she has handled all the technical aspects of this, including the formatting and cover designs. Also, my friend Neil Plakcy will weigh in. Neil has four series in bundle now: Golden Retriever Mysteries, Have Body, Will Guard, Mahu Investigations, and Angus Green FBI Thrillers. He has also bundled up a group of young adult romances, and collected together three unrelated contemporary gay romance novels. After retiring from teaching college, he now writes full-time, kept company by his husband and their two rambunctious golden retrievers. Check out his bundles at http://www.mahubooks.com

1. Why bother, if the individual books are already available?

Neil: The advantage is that readers can get a 600-page book for one credit. Bundling also helps read-through — the reader doesn’t have to go back to the store to get the next book. It’s already there. I also use the bundles to generate read-through. If you got 1-3 for free, or through Kindle Unlimited, I hope that you’ll be motivated to keep reading.

Kris: Neil’s point about read-through is a good one. A new release deserves its own launch and breathing space. But if the books have been out for some time, it can generate new interest. Binge consumption is the norm these days, and a box-set of your work at a good price entices readers.  As indie superstar Kristine Kathryn Rusch says, “The best way to get noticed is by publishing enough that readers can binge for a weekend.” Binge readers who buy box-sets are often a different audience than those who buy individual books. Why not go after them?

2. How do you decide which books to bundle together?

Neil: By theme? (I’ve done a set with stand alone gay romances) Or by series? That’s the traditional way I have done them. I usually do a three-book bundle but I’ve also experimented with a larger set. I’ve seen other authors who will put together a complete series. In my case, I’m usually still writing in that series.

Kris: Neil is very prolific. For us, we have just our Louis Kincaid series, so the decision is easy. It seems to me bundling would work best for series writers. Or perhaps you have a sci-fi or fantasy trilogy; that seems a natural. Also, romance novels in any given sub-genre, given the rapacious nature of its readers, would be a good fit.

Kelly: It’s important to keep the tone consistent in your bundle. Don’t bundle fantasy with romantic suspense, for instance. It takes time to create bundles. Use your time wisely. Three is a nice bundle, but I’ve seen authors do two-book bundles (say, a story and its sequel.) Authors also bundle 10 or more. Neil bundled nine in his golden retriever series — quite a haul for readers!


3. How do you set pricing?

Neil: Amazon lowers the royalty percentage for books over $9.99. I usually use $6.99 — that’s a bargain for three books that are usually $3.99 or $4.99 each. But most of my revenue from bundles comes from Kindle Unlimited, not from sales.

Kelly: If you’re a big gorilla, you can price your bundle high. But for the average Joe, you have to make the reader feel they are getting a deal.

4. How do convey that it’s a box set instead of a regular book?

Kelly: The most important thing you do is make sure the image you upload to Amazon or others looks like a 3D box-set (as opposed to a flat cover). Remember, the first thing a potential reader sees is this image. I designed all our individual covers. But when  I went to design the box-set image, I knew it had to look like a realistic box-set that you’d have on a bookshelf. I tried it first in photoshop but it looked amateurish, so I invested in a template specifically for this.

Neil: I use a 3-D cover that shows the front cover of the first book in the series, with an extra ribbon that indicates it’s “Books 4-6 of the Have Body, Will Guard series.” Also you can see the titles of all three books on the spine.

5. Can I do this myself?

Kelly: Yes, of course. But even if you are proficient in cover design already, it’s still a bit of a learning curve. Or hire someone to do this for you. I have designed all Neil’s covers and his box-sets. Formatting the books in the bundle is not hard if you’re used to formatting already. But it is time-consuming. You must combine three manuscripts into one file, and that can be troublesome. You’re now dealing with a 900-page file vs a 300-page file. Chapter headings can move, double breaks go crazy, and the tables of content can be a headache. If you have trouble getting professional looking interior ebooks, consider buying a template for that as well. Don’t wing it. Once you get the hang of a good template, you’ll be happy.

Kris: Back to those covers: Ugly covers signal amateur hour. If your covers are ugly, consider rebranding all your covers first before bundling.

6. Do I leave my individual books up if I upload a bundle?

Kelly: Absolutely. It’s one more product on your shelf. At the supermarket, you can buy one roll of toilet paper or 12. So it should be with your ebooks.

7. Is this really for me?

Kelly: If you’re like us, and your books have been out there for while, it spices up your bookshelf. If you are very prolific, like Neil, and have a several series and multiple stand alones, bundling them up can really expand your publishing real estate. Don’t let the possible problems intimidate you. Think creatively. You can bundle anything — and rebrand old material — if you pay attention to imagery, tone and genre.

5. What about bundling with other authors?

Neil: I have thought about it but haven’t found the right partners. Also the royalty accounting can be complicated, especially if your income is going to come from KU, since there’s no way to tell “which” pages the reader read.

Kris: This can get really messy in terms of dividing income and promotion duties. Whose publishing account will the box-set be loaded onto? Who gets the income and makes sure it is divided fairly? (Amazon allows you only to have one person on an account.). How will you handle this come tax time? Really do your homework if you are considering this. Get a legal partnership agreement. Kelly and I have one, and we like and trust each other. What happens if you and your box-set partner have a falling out? Marriage is beautiful. Divorce is ugly.

Our Louis Kincaid bundle goes live this morning. $6.99. Such a deal. Click here to check us out.



How To Leave A Great
Last Impression

“Can’t say I’ve ever been too fond of beginnings, myself. Messy little things. Give me a good ending anytime. You know where you are with an ending.” ― Neil Gaiman

By PJ Parrish

I love it when I can draft along in someone’s wake. James had a good post Sunday on how to end scenes or chapters. He talked about how he studied how King, Koontz and Grisham artfully ended chapters. And then yesterday, I was a guess blogger over at Kay’s blog The Craft of Writing, where she complimented me on the ending of one of my books.

So what better time than to talk about the alchemy of a good ending? I wish I could remember who said this, but my memory is unreliable: The opposite of a happy ending is not a sad ending. The opposite of a happy ending is an unsatisfying ending.

I recently watched The Princess Bride for the first time. Great storytelling. The last scene is the four heroes – Westley, Buttercup, Fezzik and Inigo Montoya — riding off on white horses. No lousy epilogues, just a sweet satisfying ending reflecting the movie’s tone. But here’s what screenwriter William Goldman said about it in an interview:

Well, I’m an abridger, so I’m entitled to a few ideas of my own. Did they make it? Was the pirate ship there? You can answer it for yourself, but, for me, I say yes it was. And yes, they got away. And got their strength back and had lots of adventures and more than their share of laughs.
But that doesn’t mean I think they had a happy ending, either. Because, in my opinion, anyway, they squabbled a lot, and Buttercup lost her looks eventually, and one day Fezzik lost a fight and some hot-shot kid whipped Inigo with a sword and Westley was never able to really sleep sound because of Humperdinck maybe being on the trail.

I’m not trying to make this a downer, understand. I mean, I really do think that love is the best thing in the world, next to cough drops. But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.

You probably don’t want to even think about your ending, because right now you’re spinning your wheels in chapter 7. But you should think about it. Because often it’s the ending that resonates strongest with a reader. Everything you write before it leads up to it. And if the ending is good, everything points back to it. Last impressions are important.

It’s all about structure and you being in control of your narrative and pacing. It’s also about mood and theme because a good ending emotionally connects. What you don’t want to do is write until you are exhausted and go out with a whimper. What you don’t want to do stay too long at your party and bore everyone to death. A good ending is, like everything you write, a definite choice. It is not a final groan. It is a goal.

Let’s start by defining some different types of endings. If you all think of any I’ve missed, please weigh in. SPOILER ALERTS.

Tied Up With a Bow. Common in stand alones because the story is resolved, no questions are left unanswered, the bad guys are vanquished and the hero has won. Boy gets girl. The child is rescued. The world is saved. The implication is that order has been restored and everyone lives, maybe not happily ever after, but at least existing above the dirt. Unless you’re H.G. Wells. Now my tastes run toward ambiguity in endings. But the bow route can be very satisfying for readers. Don’t apologize if it’s what your story needs.

Closing The Circle. In this structure, the story ends where it began, as events eventually lead back to the imagery, event, or scene that begins the story. Best example I can think of is Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men. The tragic ending is inevitable because Steinbeck sets up in the beginning the idea that happiness is impossible for Lennie and George. George always protects Lennie, but the task becomes too difficult when Lennie accidentally kills Curley’s wife. Steinbeck begins and ends at the same place — the pond. It is symbolic in that despite all their efforts to better themselves, Lennie and George end up exactly where they began.

Open-Ended Ending. There is still some element of resolution, but nothing is neat. There may be lingering questions, doors might be left open. This is good for series in which you may want the character arc of your protagonist to change over the course of several books. You have put your protag through a challenge, but he still has more to tell. This is one reason readers love series — one story might compel them to the next book to see what is going to happen next to the hero.

The Ambiguous Ending. This is a little different than open-ended. Ambiguity may occur with a character, plot point, image, or situation that can be understood in two or more possible ways. An ending can be interpreted in different ways. Tana French’s In The Woods is a good example. The ending, wherein some events of the case prove unresolved, left some readers frustrated.

The Twist. You’ve led readers down a plot path that makes them expect a certain ending. The satisfaction for readers is thus seeing only how you pull things off. But, maybe you decided to add a last minute plot twist that no one sees coming. Best one I can think of is Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, also a heck of a good example of an unreliable narrator.

SPOILER ALERT: Where The Crawdads Sing. After standing trial for murdering Chase, it is revealed that an exonerated Kya did, in fact, off him. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. Here’s how she explains her shocking and very abrupt ending: https://www.rollingstone.com/tv-movies/tv-movie-features/sharp-objects-finale-recap-gillian-flynn-hbo-713667/

The Ticking Clock. This is stock in thrillers. To end the story, you decide what should happen last. One example is Lee Child’s 61 Hours, wherein Jack Reacher is racing against the clock as he investigates a small-town murder in South Dakota. But Reacher doesn’t know he’s under a countdown, which creates a second layer of tension for the reader. Like Hitchcock’s bomb-under-the-table, readers know about the time “bomb” as they wait for Reacher to figure things out.

Spoiler alert: 61 Hours ends in a cliff-hanger, with the plot resolved but Reacher desperately running for his life. There’s an epilogue (see below for my take on that!) wherein Child suggests that nobody survived the explosion that ended the novel. What? Reacher’s dead? No answer in 61 Hours. But the next Reacher book Worth Dying For, opens with a bruised and battered Reacher talking to a doctor who wonders why he’s so beat up. Reacher never really explains how he walked away from the explosion. Some fans were miffed about this, but hey, he’s Jack Reacher, right? And maybe James Bond survived that missile attack in No Time To Die.

Epilogues. You all know how much I dislike prologues. (it’s mainly a taste thing). So it is with epilogues for me. This is a pin-the-vestigial-tail-on-the-donkey kind of thing. You’ve ended your story with a good resolution yet you keep yakking away. Usually to impart something like: After her would-be killer went to jail, Barbie went on to marry Ken, become a brain surgeon, and they remodeled their dream house in Hoboken. Yuck. You have to know when to leave the party, folks. After the tragedy/mystery is resolved, allow breathing room for your reader to envision what comes next. At this point, the reader’s imagination is much more powerful than yours.  “Epilogue” looks all artsy-fartsy on the page but it’s almost always an ego thing. Unless you’re Lee Child.

Example: The one good one I can remember is The Book Thief. The epilogue runs four “chapters” and it bookends the four “chapter” prologue. It worked within the complex structure of the story wherein the narrator is Death, who tells us about the girl Liesel’s journey, and laments humanity’s cruelty and hopefulness. I loved this book and its closing lines:

All I was able to do was turn to Liesel Meminger and tell her the only truth I truly know. I said to the book thief and I say it now to you.


I am haunted by humans.

Tips For Good Endings

  1. Know how things end from the beginning. I know, I know…you don’t want to hear this. It’s hard enough, especially if you’re a pantser like me, to figure things out when you’re still mucking around in chapter 2. But I almost always have at least a vague idea of what that last chapter is going to say. Sometimes I know the ending before I know where to start and I almost write in reverse gear. What you should know is the central question of your story — who killed poor old Roger? (See Agatha Christie). Can the team come together to save the world? (Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton) How far will a woman go to protect her murderous sister? (My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite.) If you can articulate the central question of your story, you have a good jump on knowing how it ends.
  2. Earn it! How you resolve your story has to come organically. What does that mean? You have to lay down clue trails logically. The end, regardless of its tone, must feel inevitable and true. Also, your antagonist must be a presence in the book early (even if you artfully conceal him or lead the reader away from him.) Don’t get lazy and resort to the Long Lost Uncle From Australia ploy where the bad guy suddenly turns up at the end.
  3. Know your tone going in. Happy or sad? Hopeful or uncertain? You want readers smiling or crying at the end? That is up to you, but whatever you chose, it must be supported by the plot foundation you lay. My own books are dark and sometimes ambiguous at end. But I like a grace note of hope.
  4. Stand Alone or Series. Of course this affects your ending. If you plan to write a series character, you must carefully consider each trait and event in that person’s life (and please, commit this to a record or dossier!). The endings of series books often provide transitions to the next. You must decide if that series character will age with each book. My own hero Louis ages one year to 18 month with every book, so I’m thankful we started book one with him age 24. Or your series character might be static. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone was born May 5, 1950 (according to Grafton’s website) but she is perennially “in her mid-30s.” A stand alone, of course, dictates a different structure. At THE END, there should be nothing left to say.
  5. Write more than one ending. So you get to act 3 and you’re in a fog. You know that finish line is out there but you can’t see it. Don’t choke. Write one ending, then write a different one or two or three. Think of it as your Director’s Cuts. Give them to a trusted friend for testing. Usually, the shortest one, the one with the emotional kick, is best. One of my favorite movies is Cinema Paradiso. An Italian boy Toto, obsessed with movies, grows into a teen who falls in love with the beautiful and obtainable Elena. He becomes a famous movie director but his bed, as his mother tells him, is always filled with strangers. In the ending, Toto returns to his tiny village and watches a montage of old movie clips of couples kissing. It is heart-crushing but so perfect. Yet the director unwisely issued a special cut in which the adult Toto tracked down Elena. It’s awful. Here’s the good ending, the most romantic two minutes ever put to film.

So, no director’s cut, okay? If you don’t believe me, go watch Apocalypse Now Redux.  

I’ll leave you with one final example from one of our own books, Island of Bones. I bring this up only because Kay told me she really liked it. I think it’s also an example of coming full circle and leaving a definite mood of hope. You can skip this part. I won’t be offended.

I wrote this last scene right after I wrote the first chapter. Chapter 1 is all action: a woman trying to escape from an island off Florida coast, so terrified that she risks taking out a small boat during a coming hurricane. The plot revolves around Louis and Mel tracking down missing women and, in the end, saving a boy and an newborn infant. The ending is back on the gulf, this time at sunset with Louis and Mel, who is slowly blind, reflecting on the case and the children they saved. Louis is compelled to tell Mel he is haunted by the fact he got a girl pregnant in college.

“What happened to her,” Mel asked.

“She left school and got an abortion.”

“You sure?”

Louis kept his eyes on the gulf. Sure? Hell, he had never thought about it before. There was no reason to think she hadn’t done what she told him she was going to do.

“Shit,” Louis said under his breath. “Like I really needed to be thinking about that possibility right now.”

Mel didn’t answer. His eyes were closed and he was leaning back on his elbows, his face upturned to catch the faint breeze. “What was her name?”

“Kyla. I screwed it up,” Louis said softly.

Mel was quiet for a long time. “You know, memory is a strange thing,” he said finally. “I mean you can’t always rely on it. I have a whole library of images in my memory, things I use to remember what something looks like, things I use to make me feel like I’m not groping around in the dark when things get bad.”

Louis was quiet, looking out at the gulf.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is that you might not be remembering that thing in college all that clearly. Memories can be…unreliable. You did the best you could at the time. I think that’s all any of us do. When you know better, you do better.”

The waves were a gentle hiss on the sand. A flock of pelicans were flying up the beach toward them, and Louis watched as they went by in a perfect V, gliding over the water. The birds were beautiful, no sound, no effort, moving through their world with not a single wasted motion. He watched them until they were gone.

“The boy will be all right,” Mel said. “And the baby is alive. You did the best you could.”

The breeze was kicking up. Louis closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath of the salty air. He listened to the breaking waves.

“Tell me what it looks like,” Mel said.

Louis opened his eyes. “What?”

“The sunset.”

“I’m not falling for that again. I know you can see it, some of it anyway.”

“All I see is a big blur of color.”

“Well, that’s all it is.”

Mel laughed. “Christ, you’re hopeless. Tell me what it looks like.”

Louis looked at the sky and shrugged. “I told you, it’s colorful.”

“Try again.”

Louis took a deep breath. “It’s red at the bottom and kind of yellow at the top.”

“You can do better than that.”

“Okay, it’s really red and really yellow. Damn it, Mel, you tell me.”

Mel lifted his face to the sky, eyes closed. “The clouds are wispy, and it’s like someone tossed a bunch of yellow and pink feathers against a freshly painted red wall. And the sun is laying itself down on the water, giving in, like you would if you were going to sleep and knew you had nothing but good dreams ahead.”

Louis looked at Mel then back out at the sky.

“I can’t do better than that,” he said.

The unreliability of our memories is a theme in the book. No cops fully trust witnesses. No person, as Mel knows, can fully trust their own memories. The mood I was going for is weary but hopeful. And with the mention of the pregnant girlfriend, we set up the plot for a future Louis book.

And on that note, I’m leaving the party.

The Soundtrack of Your Story

By PJ Parrish

Well, I didn’t purposefully piggyback on Sue’s post yesterday What Do Ringtones Say About Your Character.  We’re not that cleverly organized here at TKZ. But the beat goes on. Today I’d like to talk about our musical muses.

Several years ago, on the publication eve of our stand alone She’s Not There, Thomas & Mercer sent us a lengthy and provocative questionaire about ourselves and our book. The purpose was to pinpoint marketing campaigns and help with the book’s design design.

They asked what who we thought our audience was. (Answer: thriller readers who like character-driven stories) What we believed the “tone” of our book was (Medium dark but ultimately hopeful). They asked us what “color” our story was. (Midnight blue). They asked us for images that might inspire a cover design. (We sent them photos of women drowning like the one below left. The second one is the actual cover.)

They also asked us what music, if any, had inspired us during the writing. That last question hit the target with me. The idea for our book came as I was jogging and “She’s Not There” by the Zombies came on. I started really listening to the lyrics:

Well, no one told me about her, the way she lied
Well, no one told me about her, how many people cried
But it’s too late to say you’re sorry
How would I know, why should I care?
Please don’t bother tryin’ to find her
She’s not there
Well, let me tell you ’bout the way she looked
The way she’d act and the colour of her hair
Her voice was soft and cool
Her eyes were clear and bright
But she’s not there

The story is about Amelia, a woman who early in life lost her way on the path to living an authentic life and finds herself trying to be someone else for her rich ambitious husband. She’s living a lie. Until an accident makes her lose her memory, and she begins a journey to reclaim her life and maybe find a truer version of herself. All this while someone is hunting her down to kill her — maybe her husband.

I was struck by the woman in the Zombies song — outwardly beautiful but not there inside. The story almost wrote itself, one of the few times this has happened to me, mainly because I knew Amelia and the sotto voce song she was singing to me.

Music is often in the back of my brain when I write. I don’t mean literally because I can’t write while music is playing; it really distracts me. Writing habits is not what I am talking about here today. That’s another topic.

The point I’m trying to make is that I believe every good book has a soundtrack, a melodic mood, if you will. Now, I’m not talking here about a character’s musical taste (ie Harry Bosch famously loves jazz). Although, as Sue pointed out yesterday, knowing what music rocks your character’s soul is part of that dossier you need to be creating. I’m trying to articulate something about the mood-currents and rhythms that propel your story itself.

Only once do I remember having a hard time hearing anything as I wrote. Ironically, it was a book about music: The Killing Song, wherein a serial killer in Paris who is a professional cellist leaves behind musical clues with each victim. The clues were easy because they were all popular music (ie Elvis Costello’s “Crimes of Paris.”) But I couldn’t come up with anything that captured the black heart of the killer. I asked a cellist friend and she suggested a piece called Tout un Monde Lointain. Rough translation: All the world, distant. Which is exactly how my villain feels — alone, cut off, every question unanswered, every cry unheard.

As I listened to the piece, I began to understand him. The piece opens with a shiver of cymbals. Then the cello begins a slow meditative solo but it keeps shapeshifting from balanced to intense, almost chaotic plucking. It feels like two souls struggling. Here’s the opening minute.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m judging manuscripts for a writers conference right now. I am struck by how few of the writers seem to have given any thought to what “color” their stories are or what music is playing in the background. The few that do “sing” have a defined mood that really makes me want to read on. I can see — and hear — the worlds the writers are conjuring for me.

Also, I was thinking about this subject after I watched the film Tár, wherein Cate Blanchette plays a mentally tormented orchestra conductor. The soundtrack, heavy with Mahler and Elgar with doses of Count Basie and Cole Porter, was done by Hildur Guðnadóttir, who calls the movie “an ambient tone poem.”

The score gives the film its undertone of dread.  Guðnadóttir said in one interview: “There is a lot of music in the film that’s working on a very delicate, subconscious level, and if you took it out, it would be a completely different animal.”

That got me to thinking about other scores that amplified the tones of movies. Listen to this piece of music that was used behind the arrival of Eleanor (Katherine Hepburn) on parole from prison, in The Lion of Winter.

Regal, ethereal voices — but undercut with death-tolling bells, and discordant horns that signal a darkness beneath the pageantry.

Another score I think supports its story is in Master And Commander, much of it original, but also brilliant choices from classics. I love this piece for the way the background pulse mimics the rhythm of a sailing ship bouncing over waves as the human bustle goes on above board.

There are endless examples of scores that deepened a movie’s emotional impact. Hitchcock had his Bernard Herrmann. Sergio Leone had his Ennio Morricone. Coppola had his Nino Rota. John Williams played two tuba notes for Steven Spielberg and no one wanted to ever go into the water again.

So, what can we book people glean from this? Well, I’m often harping here on the need for tone. Every successful story has its own particular rhythm, mood, and ambience. You may not be always conscious of this, but the way you, as a writer, choose to put your words and sentences together creates a type of music. This soundtrack, be it butterfly-flit-light or chiaroscuro shadowy dark, must support your plot and characters. It must be true and unique to them. To your story. To you.

I can see you out there scratching your heads. Well, let’s try this experiment. Your book has just been bought by some bigly big director at Lionsgate. They have brought you on for extra money as a consultant (Stop that laughing!) They ask you what music is playing as the movie opens, and what music is playing as the credits roll. Do you sit there dumb as a stump? Or do you know, deep in your writer bones, what needs to be heard.

I daydream about this often. I have songs all ready to go when Hollywood calls. At the beginning of Dark of the Moon, as Louis Kincaid is tramping through the Mississippi swamps and sees a skeleton with a noose, “Strange Fruit” is playing but only in instrumental because I want it subtle.

At the end of the movie, Louis gets in his old Mustang and drives away from Blackpool Mississippi, heading home. Case is solved but Louis’s heart is not. Credits roll. There’s a long birds-eye pull-away shot of a small white car heading north through a huge close expanse of green trees. And this is what we hear:

Hey, it’s what’s playing in my head. Now, what’s in yours?


Finding Those Laser Beam Words

“When I read, I notice with pleasure when an author has chosen a particular word…for the picture it will convey to the reader.”―Ruth Bader Ginsburg

By PJ Parrish

The older I get, the more words fail me. This is a common ailment, I realize, but that’s cold comfort. What’s worse, there’s no logic to these lapses. I can sing all four verses of the theme song from The Patty Duke Show. But “thing” has now become my go-to noun in daily life — as in when I asked the husband to hand me “that thing over there” so I could change the channel on the TV.

You’d think that, as a writer, I’d be used to this. Not being able to claw up the right word from the morass of our memory is just normal for us, right? It’s part of the torture of our creative process. I’m telling you, crime dogs, this doesn’t get easier with age.

I’m judging a contest right now for a writer’s conference. The entries range from derivative to really delightful. What separates the standouts from the pack is not a matter of just plot and character or mastery of craft. Sometimes it is coming down to something as “small” as word choices. There is nothing better, as the late justice said, than to come across a phrase or sentence that is so striking and original, that you pause in your reading to savor it.

As a writer, when you hit upon just the right word, your sentences and scenes take on a vibrancy and alive-ness. The right word, phrase, metaphor, has a magical power to instantly connect with a reader, making them go “Yes! I know exactly how that feels!”

When you settle for the merely adequate word, your story becomes mundane and bloodless.

Look at these lovelies:

Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 describing the “beauty” of the pages of a book being burned: “Each becomes a black butterfly.”

John LeCarre in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold describing torture: “The pain just increases like a violinist going up the E string. You think it can’t get any higher and it does–the pain’s like that, it rises and rises.”

Does it give you, as a writer, any comfort to know that all writers struggle with this? It helps me. It’s just one more thing we have to worry about as we move through our stories, trying to keep all the pie plates spinning.

Gustave Flaubert was tortured by his quest for le bon mot, as he lamented in a letter to Guy de Maupassant:

Whatever you want to say, there is only one word that will express it, one verb to make it move, one adjective to qualify it. You must seek that word, that verb, that adjective, and never be satisfied with approximations, never resort to tricks, even clever ones, or to verbal pirouettes to escape the difficulty.

Well, I don’t know if this will make your trials any easier, but here are a couple things I’ve found useful to keep in mind as you struggle for the right words.

Keep word choice true to the characters background and age. Streetwise characters in a PI novel have their own jargon. Ditto the hero of a historical regency romance. Country folks speak a different vocabulary than city swells.  Nothing will yank a reader out of your story faster than ill-fitting words coming from your characters mouths or brains.

Be a good listener. We’re always saying here at TKZ that you must be a great observer of human behavior to write well. So must you be a great listener. Now, in daily life, people talk in cliches, banalities and tried metaphors. If you ever use one of these…

  • play your cards right
  • bring to the table
  • low-hanging fruit
  • it’s an uphill battle
  • bite the bullet
  • nerves of steel
  • weak as a kitten

…I will hunt you down. You can take that to the bank. But listening to people talk gives you a good grounding by which to fashion unique character voices. Everyone on earth has their own music. It’s your job to hear each note.

Be aware of your tone. Humor demands a different vocabulary than hardboiled. The word choices you make for mystery set in the Civil War South are going to be more specific and regimented than those for a dystopian fantasy wherein you are free to invent words and phrases. (See below!)

Beware the Thesaurus. I know, I know…it is useful but it can be a dangerous crutch. If you are overly reliant on standard synonyms, your brain will never become muscular enough to come up with something truly original to your own voice.

Okay, okay, if you’re really constipated you can take a dose of Thesaurus. Sometimes just looking a list of almost-right words can free up the juices. Just be careful that you’re not so desperate that you fall for the first pretty synonym that comes along. Here’s a really fun site for word shopping:  https://onelook.com/ (Enter your word in the box but don’t hit enter; hit Related Words)

Don’t gild every word. Sometimes, “He walked into the room” does the trick. It’s usually not “a verdant swath of fescue,” it’s just “grass.”  Pick your places to punch things up and don’t overdo it because you’ll just end up looking silly. Don’t get addicted to metaphors. As Florence King said, writers who have nothing to say always strain for metaphors to say it in.

Likewise, be aware of the moment. This is a problem I’m finding with some of the entries I am judging — the writers over-describe or strain for originality when the context/situation calls for tightness, simplicity, or specificity. This is especially true in their action scenes. The tenser the moment, the simpler the writing, I say. Do you write this?

Frank reached a trembling hand into his holster and pulled out his blue-black Glock 22,, grimacing as the hulk of his would-be assassin emerged from the shadows, lit for only a second by the red reflection of a nearby neon sign. He fired the gun, blinded for a moment by the muzzle-fire, then blinked the scene back just in time to see the large man fall forward, face first, down onto the wet street.

Or something like this?

Frank jerked out his gun, squinting to see the man in the dark alley. A second of neon throbbing on the man’s gun was enough to get off one bullet.  The man fell to the asphalt, his gun skittering into the shadows.

With this example, I cut all extraneous words to keep things moving fast. I purposely left out some things to leave room for imagination. And I tried to find the right word(s) — jerked, squinting, skittering, neon throb.

Don’t sweat it on the first draft. Sometimes, you just can’t find the word. You’re in the ballpark, but it’s not a home run. You’re sorta, kinda, just about, not far from, close to, nearly, more or less…almost there! But nothing comes. Don’t do what I often do — sit there, staring at the screen, brain in knots, paralyzed by the perfection police. PUT ANY WORD IN THERE AND MOVE ON. Believe me, the word will be there in the next draft. Or in the middle of the night.

Have fun. Don’t be afraid to make up words or use them weirdly. Now, this comes with a big caveat because you can end up looking like pretentious fool. But every once in a while, you can get away with this. I didn’t know this until I did some research, but there’s a fancy (specific!) word for this: anthimeria  It means subbing one word for another, usually a noun for a verb. “Chill” was originally a synonym noun for “cold” but has morphed into a verb meaning to relax. After Clint Eastwood gave his famous speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention, “Eastwooding” meant talking to an empty chair. Thankfully, this one didn’t catch on.  Here are a couple of good examples:

I’ve often got the kid in my mind’s eye. She’s a dolichocephalic Trachtenberg, with her daddy’s narrow face and Jesusy look. — Saul Bellow in More Die of Heartbreak.

Until then, I’d never liked petunias, their heavy stems, the peculiar spittooning sound of their name. –Kate Daniels in In the Marvelous Dimension.

You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin’ — Nancy Sinatra, These Boots Are Made For Walking.

I unwittingly committed anthimeria at pickleball once when I joked to a female opponent after she fired off a nasty shot: “Stop mean-girling me.” It stuck, though we don’t have an equivalent for the guys.

Okay, go forward and find the right stuff. And relax! This is supposed to fun, right? As I often try to do, I leave you with some final words of inspiration. These come from the great American bard, Frankie Goes to Hollywood:

But shoot it in the right direction
Make making it your intention-ooh yeah
Live those dreams
Scheme those schemes
Got to hit me
Hit me
Hit me with those laser beam [words.]


On Tutus, Right Tackles
And Writing In Obscurity

By PJ Parrish

Was perusing the New York Times over the holidays, lingering at my two favorite stops: sports and arts. In sports, I read about the Kansas City Chiefs offensive line (for you non-sports types, that’s the big fellows up front who form a pocket around the quarterback). In the arts section, I read a review of The Nutcracker that zeroed in on the corps de ballet (that’s the group of dancers who form a circle around the ballerina).

Patrick Mahomes being protected

I’ve been watching football since the 1950s, slogging with my Dad through the sad history of the Detroit Lions. I’m now a long-suffering Dolphins fan as well. I’ve been going to The Nutcracker since the 1980s, when I became dance critic. I think I have seen The Nutcracker over 400 times, every version from the dazzling (New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Bolshoi) to the amateur and heartfelt (in hot gymnasiums with many parents in the audience).

On Christmas day, I watched the Lions and Packers. That night, I saw the Tallahassee Ballet dance The Nutcracker. I often focus on the play of the offensive line because they work hard in unison to showcase the quarterback. I focus on the corps dancers because they work in sync to showcase the ballerina. Until now, it never struck me how similar their jobs are.

 They both depend on teamwork

“Sometimes I’m blocking with a blind side and one of the other linemen literally has my back. We must rely on each other. We have to know each other’s personalities to coexist out there, and we have to know each other’s tendencies. — right tackle Kareem McKenzie.

“Sometimes you feel like you are just part of the scenery…the military aspect — the discipline, the straight lines, doing everything at the same time, the lack of individuality.”– Cécile Sciaux, Paris Opera Ballet.

2. They will never be the stars but without them, the show doesn’t go on.

“When you first get into the company, you don’t think you’re going to spend your life in the corps. Your dream is to be the lead, and at one level that never goes away.” — Dena Abergel, New York City Ballet.

“As kids, we all started out as quarterbacks or receivers, but then we got fat and slow so we became offensive linemen. We might try harder now, but who is going to notice a bunch of big guys blocking? — Center Shaun O’Hara.

Well, you don’t really notice them — until they screw up. If a Chiefs lineman misses a block, Patrick Mahomes gets sacked. If a corps girl’s leg goes too high in arabesque during the Shades entrance of La Bayadere, she shatters the whole lovely illusion.

So, if you watch the playoffs this week, pay attention to the chunky guys up front. And next time you go to the ballet, watch the girls in the back. There’s artistry in their obscurity.

Which is a long ways around to get to my point, crime dogs. Many of us tell great stories. Some of us get published. Some of us work hard and publish ourselves. Very very few of us become stars. Most of us will work in obscurity and quiet hopefulness. All of us have our special fears about that.

We fear we don’t have enough talent or the stamina needed to go the distance. We fear we will never connect with an agent or editor. We fear the churning changes in publishing will crush our dreams. We fear our work will get lost in the cacophony of self-publishing. We fear we’re too old for this, or that it’s too late to even start.

We fear obscurity.

What can I say? I’ve been there, believe me. I’ve been published by the biggest houses in New York, small presses, twelve foreign houses and by my own little self. I can tell you it has never gone away, the fear of sliding into nothingness. I’m battling another round of it of late. But I’m plugging on. So here, modestly, is what I can tell you as you start anew in this new year:

Don’t stop. Face the blank screen every day. I suggest doing so after you’ve gone back and read something you’ve already written. If it’s good, you can find great solace in your genius. If it’s not so good, you’re strong enough to admit it, hit delete and try again.

Stay connected. Try to write every day because the string between you and the imagined world of your story is fragile. You have to stay connected. If you stay away too long, you forget the language, lose your place, and find your characters have drifted away. Here’s Walter Mosley on the subject:

Writing a novel is like taking a journey by boat. You have to continuously set yourself on course. If you get distracted or allow yourself to drift, you will never make it to the destination. It’s not like highly defined train tracks or a highway; this is a path that you are creating discovering. The journey is your narrative. Keep to it and a tale will be told. Nothing we create is art at first. It’s simply a collection of notions that may never be understood. Returning every day thickens the atmosphere. Images appear. Connections are made. But even these clearer notions will fade if you stay away more than a day.

Read good books. I’ve posted about this before, but it’s vital to your momentum. When my own work is rough-sailing, I take a break and go read another chapter of Jess Walter’s Cold Millions. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, he makes me want to be a better writer.

Clean yourself up. When I feel like I’m becoming engulfed by what Virginia Woolf called “the mist of obscurity” I think about that Marie Kondo lady. She’s the one who  preaches about decluttering your den or underwear drawer. Declutter the junk that prevents you from writing. Get off Facebook or whatever your social drug is. During writing time, turn off your phone’s text alerts and let your calls go to voice mail. Lock the kids out of your writing space, or decamp to a coffee house. And for heaven’s sake, clean up your office and your C-drives. Like those skinny jeans hiding in your closet, that lousy romantic suspense manuscript you whiffed on will only make you angry if you keep getting it out and looking at it.

Talk to someone. You probably don’t need a mentor, but a trusted beta-reader is good. Keep coming here to TKZ because we know what it feels like. Ditto critique groups, but stay away from pity parties where wine and whine is the only offerings.

Get some exercise. The science proves it: physical movement helps get the brain, bowels, biceps and everything going, including creative energy. I don’t recommend joining a gym. Wait until February when the crowds thin out. Walk the dog, even if you don’t have one.

Good grief. I just re-read this. I apologize for yet another extended metaphor, that bit about ballet and football. And I didn’t mean this to sound like a rah-rah-get-off-your-ass New Year’s resolution thing. I hate resolutions. Never make ’em.

But I do wish this for you as you go on into 2023: Try to embrace the idea of obscurity. Think of it merely as a state of being, a transition. Understand that writing is, at its essence, aloneness. You can’t write amid noise; embrace the quietude. Obscurity can be freeing. It releases you from your fear of failure, because who’s gonna hear you singing off-key if you’re doing it in the shower? This is what third and tenth drafts are for — whispering in the dark as you hone voice and craft until you’re ready to face the audience.

I leave you with a thought from Susan Orleans: “We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. Writing a book is an act of sheer defiance.”

And if you’re so inclined to watch, here is the Bolshoi corps in five of the most beautiful minutes in all of ballet. Good writing in the new year, friends.

Postscript: For technical reason, I am having trouble posting in our comments section today. If I don’t answer in a timely fashion, please be patient. I have to use our back door.


Do You See Dead People?

“The detective isn’t your main character, and neither is your villain. The main character is the corpse. The detective’s job is to seek justice for the corpse. It’s the corpse’s story, first and foremost.” — Ross Macdonald

By PJ Parrish

Has crime fiction gotten…more humane?

That’s the question posed by mystery writer Matthew Sullivan. The author of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore Sullivan wrote an essay a while back asking us to consider the place empathy, especially for the victims, has in modern crime fiction. To make his point, he traces how readers’ tastes in crime fiction have changed drastically from Poe through Parker to Penny. Writes Sullivan:

From “colorless” characters whose main duty was to serve the plot to well-developed human beings with rich inner lives, this shift in the way we see victims compels readers to empathize—to be emotionally invested in the page, and to experience these lost lives in full.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart. As I’ve written before in two posts (here and here), I believe readers want fully fleshed out victims, characters they can connect with — even if they are dead. Maybe especially if they are already dead when the story begins. But I didn’t realize how much empathy has changed in crime fiction over the years until I read Sullivan’s take. He gives examples of this with comments on how audiences react to the victims. Some highlights:

  1. The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Edgar Allen Poe. 1841. Recluse women dead by strangulation, straight-edge razor, blunt trauma. The role that the victim will occupy for much of the next 180 years: that of a distant, “colorless” human, whose loss is not to be felt by the reader—for that would ruin all the fun. Readers’ emotional response: Conveniently cold. And the genre begins…
  2. The Maltese Falcon. Dashiell Hammett. 1929. Miles Archer shot right through the pump with a Webley .38 revolver. When Sam Spade learns that his partner has been murdered, Sam slips right into the first two stages of grieving: lighting a smoke and cracking his knuckles. Readers’ emotional response: Rest in peace, chump! You shoulda seen it comin’.
  3. And Then There Were None. Agatha Christie. 1939. Anthony Marston poisoned (of course). There’s a good reason why Christie has 2 billion books in print, but with victims that are often scoundrels, and often under-developed, it’s little wonder that readers rarely weep over the body in the library. Readers’ emotional response: Deeply amused, thoroughly puzzled, but definitely not losing any sleep.
  4. The Talented Mr. Ripley. Patricia Highsmith. 1955. Antihero weasel Tom Ripley bludgeons Dickie to death in row boat then steals his identity. Readers’ emotional response: Downright ashamed of ourselves, especially as Ripley comforts the distraught parents of the young man he killed. Psychological suspense at its—worst?
  5. Twin Peaks. David Lynch 1989. Laura Palmer stabbed and abandoned on a beach wrapped in plastic leads the viewer into a hall of mirrors but the theme comes through clearly, just as it does in many contemporary mysteries — the ripple effects of crime. From high school hallways to booths at the diner, everyone is impacted by the shockwave of Laura’s death. Viewers’ emotional response: One of most popular series ever televised, viewers were glued—not just to the loss of Laura’s cryptic life, but also to the Log Lady, the backwards-talk, the lounge music, the strobe-lit dances, the red velvet and zig-zag floors, and the coffee-and-pie fueled onslaught of ironic Americana. 
  6. Over Tumbled Graves. Jess Walter. 2001. Walter’s jaw-dropping debut humanizes the characters by using multiple points-of-view, including those of sex-workers, criminals, and of course, philosophical detectives. Unlike a lot of serial killer stories, Walter nods toward the banality of the killer’s life and shifts our emotional investment instead toward the lives of the victims, and the messy circumstances that often steered their situations. Readers’ emotional response: empathy for these victims is through the roof. The loss of their lives is a human loss, even on the page. By now, a flipside has clearly emerged in the genre: empathy like this kind of hurts. Some of us may begin to wonder whether we’re reading for entertainment and escape, or to think and to feel—or all of the above?
  7. Razorblade Tears. S.A. Cosby. 2021. With a level of violence that would make Poe proud, the protags, hellbent on revenge, embark on a quest that entangles them with motorcycle gangs, elitist politicians, and underworld thugs. More important than the raw battles that ensue are the undercurrents of loss these men feel, and the ways they try to change, despite their age, to accept their sons for who they were. Readers’ emotional response: By turns heartbreaking and propulsive, this is another one that conjures our empathy. If these scarred men can grow into acceptance, anyone can.

Sullivan’s point is worth debating. He thinks that today’s crime readers don’t want to be merely entertained. They want to empathize with characters, especially the victims. As a reader, I dislike books wherein the victims are cardboard corpses exploited as plot propellers. As a writer, I work extra hard to bring the dead back to life in readers’ imaginations.

One of my favorite critics was Robert Ebert. He had a great line in his review of Stealing Home, a schmaltzy movie wherein Mark Harmon plays a washed-up baseball player who learns that his childhood sweetheart, Jodie Foster, has committed suicide so he returns to his hometown to fulfill her final wish by taking care of her ashes — and we are treated to flashbacks about their young love. Ebert wrote:

Why has she killed herself? The movie does not supply that sensible question with an answer, and so I will supply one: She killed herself so that she could be cremated and her ashes could be used as a prop in this movie.

Ouch. Two lessons for you: Don’t let your dead person become a prop. Don’t use flashbacks in a feeble attempt to resurrect said prop.

Maybe a definition of “empathy” is useful here, because as I understand it, it’s not exactly the same as sympathy. Sympathy is when you understand someone else’s suffering and feel sorrow or pity for what they are facing. Empathy goes deeper. It’s when you draw upon your own life to relate to another person’s experience or hardship. Example: “I recently lost my spouse so I know what it feels like to feel that deep sorrow and grief.”

This is why empathy in fiction is so powerful and why today’s readers crave it. They want to feel an emotional connection to characters. Even the unlikeable ones. Readers may not like what your character does, but it’s important that you make them understand why they are doing it. This is especially true if you’re working with an anti-hero or morally flexible protag. (think Tony Soprano, Walter White or Harlan Coben’s sociopath vigilante Win Lockwood).

But building empathy for a dead character takes some doing. A big mistake many writers make is assuming that just because a character is dead, readers will automatically feel empathy for them. And often, this manifests itself via the attitude of the protagonist. For me, one of the most irritating tropes in crime fiction is the hyper-masculine dude who plows through the case unscathed and uncaring.

If your protag isn’t feeling anything for the victim, how do you expect your readers to?

So how do you create empathy for your victims? How do you avoid creating cardboard corpses? Treat them like any living character and put flesh on the narrative bones. Some methods I’ve found useful that might work for you:

  • Details matter. If you’re wont to create dossiers, make one for your victim. You may not use all the details but it helps you visualize, in your imagination (and thus the reader’s) what kind of person they were. Diaries, journals, photographs, yearbooks, a Facebook page — all are rich fodder. Be careful you don’t make your victim a saint. Make them human.
  • What did your victim want? Vonnegut said it might be only a glass of water, but everyone wants something. What your victim wanted might have been what got them killed. You need to know this.
  • Connect them to your suspect(s). The most interesting crimes are not random; they are plotted out with purpose and precision. Why did your antagonist choose the victim he did? What details of the victim’s life affected their fate? How did their lives intersect?
  • Use other characters. The protag can interview family or friends. Maybe there’s a memorial service for a dead teenager where attendees reminisce. One of the most powerful examples of this is a short story by Tim O’Brien called The Things They Carried. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, the leader of a platoon of soldiers in Vietnam, carries physical reminders of Martha, the object of his unrequited love. Thoughts of Martha distract Cross leading to a death in the squad. Guilty over his friend’s death and heartbroken, Cross destroys all reminders of Martha so he can focus on the mission. But the theme is that people tell stories about the dead to keep their memory alive. We can’t keep them physically alive in this world, but by remembering them and creating stories about them, we give them another shot at life. You can read the story here.
  • Revisit a victim’s physical world. I use this often in my Louis Kincaid books, because Louis feels a strong connection to the dead person when he physically enters their temporal world, be it the bedroom of a teenager girl or the last place they were alive. Culling through a victim’s possessions can be incredibly evocative and emotional, as any of us who has ever had to sort through a relative’s things after a funeral knows.

Let’s give the last word on this to Laura Lippman, in an excerpt from an essay she wrote for the Library of Congress Magazine:

Doesn’t everyone have empathy for victims? I don’t think so. Sympathy, sure. Sympathy is easy. But empathy, true empathy, requires imagining how another person feels. It’s the essential lesson of “To Kill a Mockingbird”; Atticus Finch is constantly exhorting his children to try to see the world from someone else’s perspective.

That novel’s penultimate scene takes place on the porch of the neighborhood weirdo, the reclusive Boo Radley. For years, Atticus’ children have made fun of him, trafficked in gossip about him. But in the end, Boo saves them, quite literally. Scout, who tells the story, stands on Boo’s porch and sees the world as he saw it. “He was real nice,” she tells her father. “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them,” Atticus says.


Misjudging A Book By Its Cover,
Getting Back In The Saddle,
And In Praise of Bad Writing

By PJ Parrish

We should all have such problems…

I read a story in the New York Times this week about a debut author whose novel became an international bestseller with rights sold in 40 countries, was named Barnes & Noble’s book of the year, and is on track to be the bestselling debut novel of 2022. Oh yeah, an Apple TV+ adaption is in the works.

But she’s getting a lot of hate mail because of her….cover.

The book, Lessons In Chemistry, is about a woman scientist in the 1960s who is opinionated, funny and intelligent, but she’s cheated out of her doctorate and brutally sidelined by male colleagues who, as one reviewer put it, make Don Draper look like a SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy). Think of The Queen’s Gambit set in the macho labs of abiogenesis. The heroine wears a sharp No. 2 pencil in her chignon not for style but as a weapon against sexual advances.


But then there’s that cover.  Bubble-gum pink, with a cartoonish woman’s face peering over a pair of cat-eye sunglasses. Some readers picked it up as a quick beach read, expecting — I hate this phrase — “women’s fiction.” What they got was a serious look at the frustrations of a generation of women, who were relegated to the corners, ignored, or worse.

Garmus is able to laugh about the hate mail from some readers, saying, “They were like, ‘You’re the worst romance novelist ever!’”  She says the cover has turned off a few men, admitting that during an talk to an all-male book club, members were dissuaded by the cover’s Necco Wafer shell. “But as I’m fond of saying,” Garmus said, “the book isn’t anti-men, it’s anti-sexism.”

It’s also, by all accounts, a fun read. There’s a mystery, mixed in with a shrewd  look at politics, and a dysfunctional bad local TV station. The heroine has an addiction to her rowing machine, loves her daughter and her dog Six-Thirty.

James Daunt, chief executive of B&N, admits that aiming the novel at a female readership is “a bit pigeonholing….but the book has dominated the cover.”

Love that phrase — dominated its cover. As a writer who has had her share of bad covers, I sympathize. It’s an eye-catching cover, to be sure. But the dissonance between it and its message is jarring. I’m glad Garmus can joke about it. She had more than 100 rejections of other manuscripts before Lessons In Chemistry. Nice to break through — at the ripe young age of 65.

How To Get Back To Writing

Back from a long and lazy vacation where eating, drinking and reading were the only things on my brain, I’m having a devil of a time opening the file of the WIP. So when Jane Friedman’s latest blog popped up in the mailbox the other day, I clicked.  It was by an author who, feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, found a way to grease the wheels again.

Matthew Duffus writes: “When I finished my MFA in 2005, I didn’t write for a year. Between exhaustion from completing a readable draft of a novel on deadline and the confusion caused by having too many critical voices in my head (thanks, workshop), I didn’t know where to begin, let alone how to get to The End of something. I’d burned out on my thesis, realizing it would be my “novel in the drawer,” and had no idea what to do next. After the first few maddening weeks, I tried embracing Richard Ford’s concept of ‘refilling the well.’ When this stopped working, I knew I needed to try something new.”

Duffus has three easy steps. And yeah, I’ve tried all three.

  1. Set a challenge. Forget stuff like NaNoWriMo. He says, “had I known about that event in 2005, I would have crawled into bed and not come out until December 1st.” Instead, he read like a maniac — English classics mainly. It made him eager to write again. I get that. After my vaca, I was sated on reading. My fingers longed for the keyboard again.
  2. Start small. Says Duffus, “Instead of aiming for 1,000 words per day, as I’d done in grad school, I bought a pack of three-by-five index cards and numbered the first thirty. I filled the lined side of one index card per day for the next month. By the end of that period, I had the beginnings of a longer piece that I was already dedicated to pursuing further.” For me, my small stuff was returning to a short story I had been stalled on, and sweating the deadline for an anthology.
  3. Try a new style. Focusing on his notecards forced Duffus to go slower rather than obsess about hitting a daily word count. He also switched a stalled novel from third to first person and it gave him momentum. That led him to finally set aside a novel he had worked on for 15 years and begin a new one. He finished it. I had a similar experience with my short story. It wasn’t working. I switched it from third to first and reset the time from the present to the 1960s, using John D. MacDonald’s style as my inspiration. I finished it this weekend. It was fun.

You’ve Gotta Be Good To Write This Badly

Finally, I give you the year’s best in really bad writing. No, no…not the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. They’ve cancelled them because as the judges wrote: “The public has been subjected to too many bad things this year to justify exposing it to bad sex as well.” Well, we’ll just have to go back and re-read our John Updike, right?

That leaves us with the Bulwer-Lytton Dark and Stormy Night contest. Since 1982 the Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest has challenged participants to write an atrocious opening sentence to the worst novel never written. The contest honors Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford begins with “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I forgot to report these earlier this year, but attention must be paid. Especially since the grand prize winner this year is a fellow crime dog.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER by John Farmer Aurora Col.

I knew she was trouble the second she walked into my 24-hour deli, laundromat, and detective agency, and after dropping a load of unmentionables in one of the heavy-duty machines (a mistake that would soon turn deadly) she turned to me, asking for two things: find her missing husband and make her a salami on rye with spicy mustard, breaking into tears when I told her I couldn’t help—I was fresh out of salami.

CRIME AND DETECTIVE FIRST PLACE by Jim Anderson, Flushing, Mich.

The detectives wore booties, body suits, hair nets, masks and gloves and longed for the good old days when they could poke a corpse with the toes of their wingtips if they damn well felt like it.

Dishonorable Mentions 

They called Rock Mahon the original hard-boiled detective, and it wasn’t because of his gravelly voice, or his crusty manner, or his chiseled jaw, or his cement-like abs, or his feldspar fists, or his iron incorruptibility, or his calcite cynicism, or his uzonite unsentimentality, but because of his goddamned, geezly, infuriating habit of polluting every crime scene with shells dropped from the hard-boiled eggs he munched without surcease.– Barbara Stevenson, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

As detective Harry Bolton knelt down looking at the fifth murdered prostitute in as many weeks, he thought his was a cold cruel city and that maybe he should have taken that job in rural North Carolina but he didn’t think he could be like sheriff Andy Taylor all in black and white, plus he couldn’t stand Aunt Bea’s falsetto voice, and who names their kid Opie anyway, he had to know it rhymed with dopey, you might as well just call him dipstick, that doesn’t rhyme with much. — Doug Self, Brunswick, ME

The heat blanketed the small village in much the same way a body bag blankets a murder victim, except that a body bag is usually black, which the heat wasn’t, as heat is colorless, and the village wasn’t dead, which a murder victim usually is. — Eric Rice, Madison, WI

In honor of all the winners, I leave you with the queen of real talent laboring in the pursuit of artful awfulness — Lucille Ball. She made an enduring and endearing shtick about her caterwauling attempts to get on the stage. In real life, she was a pretty okay singer. Hit it, Lucy.


What We Can Learn About Writing From Reading On Vacation

The Abbey Bookshop in Paris

Cars are not nouns. They’re adjectives. — Fredrik Backman

By PJ Parrish

The best thing about vacationing in a foreign country is not being able to understand what’s on television. During our month-long stay in France, I was limited to the reality show Master Chef in French. A deflated souffle is the same in any language — pack your knives, knave!

So I got to read. A lot. I don’t use Kindles or tablets so I have to rely on tree books. I took three but burned through them fast. Restocked at the Abbey Bookshop in Paris, but still ran out of good stuff by the time we got to Provence. Luckily, our rental house had bulging bookshelves. Unluckily, most of it was non-fiction or Italian novels. Including Stephen King’s L’Ombra dello Scorpione. (No clue…)

I read 22 books in three weeks. Some were as great as the Basque Pikorra cheese we had. A few were as forgettable as Velvetta. One I tossed into the pool (yes, I will name names). Another, a bestseller from a great series, put me, and my dog, to sleep. Most entertained me. And almost all of them taught me something about this maddening thing we call writing.

Here’s a sampling and what I learned from each. Apologies for the long post today, and I forgive you if you skim read.

The Financial Lives of the Poets. By Jess Walter. Matthew Prior quits his newspaper job to gamble everything on a quixotic notion: a web site devoted to financial journalism in the form of blank verse. Before long, he’s in debt, six days away from losing his home — and spying on his wife’s online flirtation. Then, one night on a desperate two a.m. run to 7-Eleven, he falls in with some local stoners. Havoc follows.

I loved this book. It’s gasp-out-loud funny. Surprising at every turn. Darkly satirical yet achingly tender. You ever get a book you start to read more slowly because you don’t want it to end? This was it for me. I’ve read only one other Walter book, Beautiful Ruins, his paean to crazy love starring a weird Italian trying to build a golf course on a Ligurian cliff, Burton and Taylor trysting during Cleopatra, and a doomed starlet. Richard Russo called it “an absolute masterpiece.” Walter has written only 10 novels, snapped up countless awards, and won the Edgar for his crime novel Citizen Vince. (I’m off to get it today).

THE LESSON. Trust in your ability to be original. Don’t be a pale copy of someone else. Take chances. The two Walter books I read are blazingly different yet both quirky and deeply affecting. As Walter told the New York Times: “I judged a contest once — 200-some books — and another judge said: ‘You’ll be surprised how many good books there are, and how few great ones.’ Indeed, there were many ‘well-written books’ but the great ones stood out for other qualities: audacity, originality, thematic weight. I think writers sometimes fall in love with this idea of “the gorgeous sentence” and it becomes their only definition of writing. But other elements are also part of writing; to me, an elegant narrative shape is every bit as beautiful as great prose.” Amen to that.

Me and Archie and Ian Rankin.

A House Of Lies. By Ian Rankin. Retired detective John Rebus gets pulled back in when a skeleton of a private eye is found in the woods. His old friend, Siobhan Clarke is assigned to the case.

I’ve enjoyed other Rebus novels and was eager to sink back into this evergreen series. But the pacing was glacial and too many characters are introduced too early — except for Rebus who shows up late for his own party. The Scots are said to be folks of few words. Not here. The cop banter is numbing. It’s the 22nd outing for Rebus, so maybe the old fellow was a bit tired. I don’t know. I gave up on page 72. Very put-downable.

THE LESSON: Keep the focus in the early pages on your protag. Establish a compelling fissure in the norm immediately. Don’t crowd your stage with minor characters too soon. Make your dialogue advance the plot — less talk, more action. And never forget that you’re only as good as your last book.

A Man Called Ove. By Fredrik Backman

Ove, an ill-tempered, isolated retiree who spends his days enforcing block association rules and visiting his wife’s grave, has finally given up on life just as an unlikely friendship develops with his boisterous new neighbors.

I plucked this off the shelf not expecting much. The ho-hum opening line: Ove is fifty-nine. He drives a Saab. And the Ove character is just really nasty and off-putting. Plus it’s set in Sweden. But this quirky, funny, dark book unfolds with grace and perfect pacing, toggling between the present and Ove’s childhood. It’s heartbreaking and ultimately life-affirming. I’ve since found out it’s a word-of-mouth international bestseller. (where have I been?) And it will be released this Christmas as a movie starring — who else? — Tom Hanks (renamed as Otto from Pittsburgh). I love it when I stumble upon a book having no expectations and then am blown away. Oh, as for that opening line: The author says his editor all but demanded that he change it — you need something juicier, editor said. Backman fought for the Saab line.

The Lesson: Yes, an unlikeable character can carry a story. But you must, as Fredrik Backman does with Ove, give your hero a sturdy and believable arc, allowing the plot and other characters to affect his development.  Other lessons: Pay attention to your other cast members. Each one in this book has an impact — some small some major — on Ove’s life. Each is rendered with love and vividness.

A final lesson: Don’t agree with everything an editor tells you to do. Opening lines, at their best, telegraph to your readers the thematic heart of your story. The opening line about the Saab is a splendid example of what we here call “the telling detail.” The Saab comes to symbolize Ove’s very soul. Backman talks about this in a wonderful essay he wrote called “Something About a Saab”: Quote: “It’s a pretty weird process, writing a book…a lot of compromises are made, sometimes between the writer and the publisher…but mostly between the writer and the writer. Ideas are edited, dialogues are shortened, characters are fired. Editors like to call this process killing your darlings. If there is one thing in this whole novel process that wild horses and armed men could have never convinced me to get rid of it was that second sentence: He drives a Saab. I could have written twenty pages and never gotten as much said about Ove as with those four words…Above all you know exactly  what men who drive Saabs would have said about us. Because cars are not nous. They’re adjectives.”

Which is why, when I finally divorced my first husband, I got rid of my Honda Accord and bought a TR6 convertible.

Sea of Tranquility and Last Night In Montreal. By Emily St. John Mandel. 

You might know from my previous posts that I’m a big fan of this writer. Her Station Eleven and Glass Hotel are two of the best books I’ve read in the past five years. I splurged on a hardcover of her latest Sea of Tranquility. It involves time travel, love, and plague that takes the reader from Vancouver Island in 1912 to a dark colony on the moon five hundred years later, unfurling a story of humanity across centuries and space. Loved this book! So I grabbed a used copy of her first book Last Night in Montreal at the Abbey Bookshop, ready to be entranced again. Oh brother, what a hot mess. The main character Lilia was abducted in the night by her father. As an adult, Lilia wanders from city to city, lover to lover, eluding a PI who’s obsessed with finding her. There’s a second character Eli, also obsessed with her, trailing her like a sick puppy. Lots of dark hints about a tortured childhood, a bad mom, and such. But mainly, it’s Lilia and Eli whining about their useless lives, as the detective — totally without motivation –lets his relationship with his own daughter wither and die.

The Lessons: Sea of Tranquility taught me that you can indeed whiplash readers through time but only when you’ve got the firmest grasp of your craft. Mandel never gets you confused. Plus she’s a master at world-building. I totally believed her scenes set on the moon colonies. Last Night in Montreal taught me that SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN. (Boy, you haven’t heard that here before, right?) And that whining isn’t deep. It’s just boring. Oh, and that big secret about her bad childhood? A big meh at the end. Lesson: Don’t set up some juicy plot tease and then not follow through. (Montreal is the book that landed in the pool.)  And a final lesson for you all just starting out: Yes, your first book might be flawed but put it behind you and keep moving forward. There’s maybe a Station Eleven — it won the PEN and National Book Award and was an HBO series — waiting to claw its way out of you.

La Sentence By John Grisham

By my final three days, I had exhausted the rental house’s English novels. There was just John Grisham left. Now, I’m not a Grisham fan. I concede he’s a good storyteller but his writing sounds clunky to my ear. Also, this book was in French. It was called La Sentence, a translation of Grisham’s 2018 family saga cum mystery cum war novel The Reckoning. 

Thanks to years of adult ed and Babbel, I have a passable reading knowledge of French. So, dictionary in hand, I cracked open La Sentence, ready for a long slog. The story hooked me immediately. It is 1946 and wounded war hero Pete Banning has returned to his family cotton business in small town Mississippi. Page one: On a cold morning, Banning wakes before dawn and decides today is the day he will kill someone. He knows it will change the lives of everyone he cares for, but “the killing became as inevitable as the sunrise.”

I’ve tried to read French novels before — mainly Georges Simenon’s Maigret series — but the native language’s nuances frustrated me. But this was easier reading, maybe because it is so plot-driven. Also, I began to wonder if Grisham’s translator had added something, making the description and emotion more musical. When I got home, I got a used copy of The Reckoning in English and compared the two.

Take this line in the French version, from a scene where Banning is heading toward town, surveying the cotton fields and workers as he drives.

Les fleurs de coton, emportées par le vent, saupoudraient la route derrière les charrettes.

Here is how I translated it (and checked it via Google):

The cotton flowers, carried away by the wind, powdered the road behind the carts. 

But here is how it appeared in The Reckoning (original English) as Grisham actually wrote it:

Cotton blown from the trailers littered the shoulders of the highway.

Note the difference in word choice: “flowers” instead of cotton balls. “carried away by the wind” instead of “blown” and “littered.” And there’s the use of that verb saupoudre, which in French is used most often to describe powdering a cake with white sugar.

THE LESSON: Word choices matter. Given his massive success (and The Reckoning was well reviewed), maybe Grisham needn’t worry about finding the great word or well-turned phrase. But given this book’s sad opening and almost elegiac tone, I wish he had tried harder to give Pete Banning a better soundtrack. I’m going to finish the book, but sticking with the French version. I like a little powdered sugar with my plots.

So, what have you all been reading lately? And what did you learn from your reading that helped you as a writer?


The Dénouement: Tying Up
The Yarn Strands Of Your Story

(Morning, crime dogs. I am en route from Paris to Tallahassee today. I hope. Airports are crazy these days. Will try to check in here if I make it to Atlanta.)

It is the loose ends with which men hang themselves. — Zelda Fitzgerald.

By PJ Parrish

Another sleepless night. Another search for a good old movie on TCM. Tonight, I caught the last half hour of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Right at the climax when the tensions and heat in the Brooklyn neighborhood boiled over, leading Mookie to throw a trash can through the window of Sal’s pizza joint. All hell then breaks loose.

Spike Lee choreographs this climax with chilling precision. But what interested me was what came after. The next day, Mookie and Sal, standing in front of the smoldering ruins of the pizza joint, argue then reach a tepid reprochement. But Lee adds a coda of the local DJ (Samuel Jackson) greeting his listeners with the admonishment “Wake up! Up you wake, up you wake, up you wake! It’s gonna be another hot day.” Then before the credits roll, Lee gives us two quotes — from Martin Luther King Jr. on peaceful protest and Malcolm X on violence as self-defense.

That’s when I got up and jotted some notes for this blog. Because I think the ending of Do the Right Thing is a great departure point for a talk here about the dénouement.


You’ve probably heard this term bouncing about in craft books or maybe on conference panels. But I’m not sure we really know what it is or how we should use it in our books.
First, let’s learn how to say the sucker: It’s day-new-moh.

It comes from the Old French word desnouer, “to untie” and the Latin word nodus for “knot”. It’s the part of the story that comes after you’ve built up your conflicts in a rising arc of tension and blown up your plot in a giant fireball of gun fights, car chases, lovers’ quarrels, dying zombies or melting Nazis. The dénouement is where you the writer have to tie up those loose plot ends, slap on some salve, leach out the suspense and resolve things into a nice satisfying conclusion.

Or maybe not. But we’ll get back to Spike Lee in a second. For now, let’s stick with conventional dénouements.

Above is a slide from one of our workshops. A good plot is never a flat line or even a comet-shot straight upward. It is like that fever chart at the bottom — a series of triumphs and setbacks for your hero but its main thrust is always upward toward the climax. And that little downward line out to Z is the dénouement.

Think of the dénouement as a coda to the big movements that precede it. It is a tail on the plot beast, but still important because it is where things are explained (if necessary) and secrets revealed (sometimes). Shakespeare was big on dénouements: In Romeo and Juliet, after the lovers are dead, the Montagues and Capulets gather and Escalus lays a big guilt trip on them all telling them their feud is to blame. At the end of Hamlet, with the stage strewn with bodies, Horatio shows up to remind us that the voices of angels will carry Hamlet to his heavenly rest, meaning his story – and thus he – will live forever.

To use a metaphor: Your climax is well, like a climax. The dénouement is smoking the cigarettes afterward.

Maybe it’s useful to stop here and think about the THREE-ACT STRUCTURE. James and others here at TKZ talk about this a lot, so if you aren’t familiar with it, pick up James’s books on plot structure or go troll through our archives. Here’s the skinny over-simplified: The first act is your set-up wherein you introduce characters and their world, set up your plot, and define the main conflict that is the hero’s call to action. The second act is “rising action,” a series of events and setbacks that build up to the climax. The third act is the turning point and climax that requires the hero to draw on strengths, confront the antagonist and solve the problem at hand. Then we move into “resolution” where conflicts may be fixed, normalcy restored, and anxiety (for the reader) released.

The dénouement is a big deal in traditional detective stories. At the end, you will often get Holmes or Poiret laying out the clues and explaining how they figured things out.
One of my favorite detective dénouements is from Psycho. The climax has Norman, dressed up as Mother, trying to stab Lila in the creepy cellar. But what comes next is the scene where the psychiatrist explains what happened to Norman.

It’s hokey, yeah, but we need to understand how Norman got so twisted. Likewise, you might need such a useful scene to help untangle the yarns of your plot at the end.

There’s a great example of dénouement in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. After the climatic fight between Biff and Willy and Willy’s suicide (to get insurance money) there is a final scene called “Requiem” where the family gathers at Willy’s funeral. Sadly, no one has come to pay their respects. Biff laments that Willy had “the wrong dreams.” And Willy’s wife, who has been able to cry, breaks down, sobbing that the house is now paid for, repeating “We’re free…we’re free.”

Both Terminator movies have nice dénouements. In the first one, Sara Conner in her Jeep, guns and dog in tow, pulls into a last-stop desert gas station where a young boy points to the darkening sky and says “a storm is coming.” Sara’s last line before she heads off toward the apocalypse — “I know. I know.” In the sequel, the dénouement is the “good” Terminator lowering himself into the fire pit to destroy his microchip and thus save the world.

Another of my favorites is from The Shawshank Redemption. After Andy Dufresne escapes from prison and disappears, the story is essential over and all is resolved. But no…we are treated to his friend Morgan Freeman’s touching narration about going free: “I hope the Pacific Ocean is as blue as it is in my dreams.”

I think a denouement is different than an epilogue. An epilogue is an animal unto its own world, a specific literary device that has a special purpose, often yoked with a prologue. The denouement usually takes places immediately following the climax and resolution; an epilogue is usually separated by time — week, months or years later. Sometimes it hints at a sequel to come, or it serves as a commentary of sorts on what has happened. It might sum up what happened much later to the characters. Think of way George Lucas used this device in American Graffiti — as the credits rolled, he shows graduation pictures of each character and listed what happened to each i.e. “Curt Henderson is a writer living in Canada.”

A good denouement is subtle. What you don’t want to do is end up with an extended “Now I have to explain why I have to kill you” speech. This is not a true denouement; this is just a bad climax. The skeins that you weave as you move through your story should come together in a logical and satisfying pattern. And if you have some little loose threads that might poke out after that — well, that’s what the denouement is for.

But then there’s the big question: Do you have to untie every knot? Do you have to snip off every loose thread? No, of course not. I love ambiguity in endings. I don’t like anal books that clean up everything. And truth be told, I don’t really enjoy those classics mysteries where the detective gathers everyone in the dining car and lays it out there. I want to figure some things out for myself. And I crave some messiness in my fiction. Not all stories are neat; not all storytellers color within the lines.

Which brings me back to Spike Lee and his denouement for Do the Right Thing. It doesn’t tie up anything in a pretty bow. In fact, Lee rejects the whole idea of traditional closure. Mookie and Sal are left in a wary face-off that personifies the unease of race relations in this country. The mayor (Ossie Davis) tells Mookie to “do the right thing” but no one in this story really knows what that is, which is the only thing that is clear at the end. So what can Spike Lee leave us with except the denouement he offers — two powerful and deeply conflicting quotes from King and Malcolm X. And a final picture of them shaking hands?

Some knots just defy untying.