Ending Lessons From a Couple of Movies

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So the other day I watched Pretty in Pink, the 1986 Molly Ringwald film, written by John Hughes.

Why was I, a thriller author, watching Pretty in Pink? Because of James Spader. I’m a Spader fan, and I had been listening to Rainn Wilson’s memoir, The Bassoon King. Wilson (who played Dwight Schrute on TV’s The Office) was talking about his odd upbringing and high school days, and made a passing reference to being around rich kids who were like James Spader in Pretty in Pink. I didn’t recall that Spader was in the film.

So I went to the library and got the DVD and watched it.

I can see why Molly Ringwald captured hearts back then. She’s adorable and spunky and irresistible. The movie …

… okay, here netiquette demands that I insert a ***SPOILER ALERT***. I will be talking about the ending in detail, so if you want to see the movie fresh, now’s the time to go pour yourself another cup of joe.

As I was saying, the movie is about a high school girl, Andie (Ringwald), who comes from the wrong side of the tracks. She’s in school with a lot of rich kids, who look down their imperious beaks at her. Chief among these privileged snoots is Steff (Spader) who can’t stand that Andie won’t give him a tumble. When Steff finds out his best friend Blane (Andrew McCarthy) likes Andie, he tries to shame him out of it.

Andie is attracted to Blane, which is a cause of serious heartache for Andie’s friend, “Duckie” (Jon Cryer). Duckie loves Andie with a passion, but Andie loves him only as a pal.

Perfect John Hughes formula, eh?

Prom is coming, and no one’s asked Andie. She doesn’t expect it. But of course Blane does, and Andie is in heaven. Duckie is in hell.

But then Steff steps up his campaign to break up Blane and Andie. He tells Blane he’s got to choose. If he insists on seeing Andie, they will no longer be friends.

Blane is conflicted, but decides to break it off with Andie. He doesn’t return her calls. When she corners him at school, he makes up a lame excuse about having invited someone else to the prom and that it slipped his mind. Andie doesn’t buy it, calls him a liar, and runs out in tears.

Prom night comes. Andie decides to take a pink dress and do some of her quirky design work on it. She gets all ready to go to the prom, alone. When her dad asks her why, she says “I just want to let them know they didn’t break me.”

She gets to the hotel but is scared to take the final step inside the ballroom. She looks up. And sees Duckie. He has also shown up alone.

They run into each others’ arms and enter the ballroom together.

Blane, who is also sans date, sees them. He gets up to go to her. Steff tries to stop him. Blane tells him off (finally).

Blane goes up to Andie and Duckie. He apologizes. He says he always believed in her, he just didn’t believe in himself. Then he says, “I love you,” kisses her on the cheek, and walks out.

Duckie, the noble friend, says, “If you don’t go to him now, I’m never gonna take you to another prom again. This is an incredibly romantic moment, and you’re ruining it for me.”

Andie thanks him, runs out to the parking lot. She and Blane kiss in the rain.

The End.

Okay, here’s where it gets interesting. I felt the ending was not right. I thought:

a) Andie shouldn’t go running after Blane. He acted like a jerk. He gave her up over a measly threat from James Spader! Come on! He deserved to suffer for being so spineless.

b) Andie running after him so quickly brought her down in my estimation. She owed her loyal friend at least a dance.

c) Duckie deserved that dance, seeing as how he saved Andie’s dignity by walking into the prom with her.

d) The dialogue line “I love you” is almost always manipulative and lazy (see The Art of War for Writers, Chapter 39).

So as I’m thinking all that, I look at the Special Features menu on the DVD and see that there is a segment on “the original ending.”

And guess what? My instincts, and indeed those of John Hughes himself, were correct. In the ending that was in the script and which they shot, Andie and Duckie do dance together and then it fades out.

Which was, as they say, justice. But apparently test audiences weren’t so happy. A majority said they wanted the cute girl to end up with the cute guy!

An internal battle broke out over the ending. Most of the creative team wanted it to stay as shot, but the suits with the purse strings feared a negative audience reaction. Guess who won that fight?

So six months after the movie had wrapped, they got the cast back together to film the ending that’s in the movie.

And got negative reaction anyway! Even now, people are split on the ending. The stars (Ringwald, McCarthy, and Cryer) who were being interviewed on the DVD (these interview were filmed in 2006, twenty years after the release) talked about the controversy. Cryer remembered feeling robbed when they changed things. And he says people still come up to him, sometimes quite livid, insisting Andie and Duckie should be together at the end!

Why would they think that? Simply this: Justice was not served!

But, the other side insists, there was no sexual chemistry between Duckie and Andie. Molly Ringwald herself is of that opinion.

Ah, but there was another way it could have gone!  Andie and Duckie enjoy the prom together, then Duckie tells Andie to go to Blane. And when she goes to Blane it shouldn’t be to fall into his arms. Let it be left that they may end up together, so long as Blane proves he’s not shallow. The ending can therefore be hopeful, but not wrapped up in a pretty pink bow.

What’s the lesson here?

a) Don’t listen to the suits.

b) The best endings are about justice, not necessarily about the cuties getting together. Exhibit A: the most famous ending of all time, Does Rick end up with Ilsa? No! But justice is done, and Rick does gain “a beautiful friendship.”

Next, I watched Big Jake, a later John Wayne western. I watched Big Jake to balance out Pretty in Pink and restore order to the universe.

Big Jake is a straightforward rescue plot. Jake McCandles (Wayne) learns his grandson has been kidnapped for ransom. With his two sons, an Indian friend, and a loyal dog named Dog, McCandles sets out to get the boy back.

Dog is trained to attack bad guys when prompted by the command, “Dog!” (John Wayne films are not complex). There’s a big showdown between Wayne’s group and the bad guys, one of whom wields a machete. Dog, wounded by a gunshot, nevertheless puts the bite on the machete guy. There’s a struggle. Machete guy breaks free, and hacks the heroic Dog to death!

Here’s my lesson from Big Jake: Don’t kill the dog!

And those are my random thoughts about two ending in two films.

So now it’s your turn: Do you have any lessons you draw from disappointing endings?

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A Checklist For Writing A Great Ending

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

I don’t always write a “happy” ending. In the romance genre, that’s called HEA, or happy ever after. My main goal is to stay true to my character(s) and motivation. The plot can spring from the flaws of a character or be influenced by those imperfections. Since I like conflict between my main characters, that can mean their happy ending doesn’t neatly happen by the end of the novel. I don’t want to force it or contrive an ending that doesn’t remain true to my character’s story arcs.

“Happy ever afters” are popular and even if you’re not a romance reader, a satisfying ending can be important, especially if it makes the reader feel good at the turn of the last page. But there’s nothing wrong with an ambiguous ending if it fits with your character and your world. An author writes the story he or she wants to tell.

A Checklist For Writing A Great Ending

1.) Tie up the loose ends – One of my final edit reviews is when I search for subplots and key elements to tie up to make a satisfying ending. If I introduced a DNA lab result earlier in the plot, did I bring the results in later? Are all my subplots resolved? Are all my character motivations justified enough? Nothing make a more hearty meal than a good, solid ending. Don’t leave loose ends.

Word of caution – Don’t tie up everything in one long character dialogue scene. This reminds me of the cheesy Charlie Chan movies or older Sherlock Holmes films where the hero regurgitates all the clues with answers. Try to be more subtle or break up the loose end tie-ins so it doesn’t feel too contrived. Another pet peeve of mine is the villain who feels compelled to answer all the detective’s questions on his motives, gloating. Break apart these disclosures and don’t turn your diabolical villain into a chatty girlfriend who wants to bear his or her soul. Find a more realistic way for these disclosures to come out in subsequent scenes when the investigators are closing their case.

2.) Restore the world even if it’s not perfect – Redemption at the end of a book can be good as well as uplifting. I like the idea of restoring the world that an author creates, but it doesn’t always have to be the same world. Crime affects people in a bad way and it radiates out like ripples on still water with many people affected—from the victim to the family survivors to cops investigating the case. Don’t be afraid to show the aftermath. A story can feel positive if the protagonist survives, but don’t be timid in portraying how much your character has been affected.

3.) Consider your series endings – There are many ways to end individual books within a series. You can have a major cliffhanger. You can hint or foreshadow something coming in the next installment. Or you can have each book end completely, yet have the growth and story lines of the characters weave a tapestry through your series. How an author develops a series (and the books within it) can be a conundrum. A key decision element might be if you plan on releasing each book back-to-back with a short period between book launches. Your readers won’t have to wait too long for each installment. But if you’re a new author and want a traditional house to consider your work to publish, unless the house is interested in buying the whole series, it might be better to write a more conservative ending without a major cliffhanger (in case the publisher doesn’t not buy the whole series).

4.) Do not clutter your ending with last minute conflicts – I would consider a last minute distraction or entanglement to be a cheat for the reader. When such a beast springs from the pages, a reader might sling your book at a wall with the contrivance. Give the reader an ability to solve the case on their own. They can’t do that if the author springs unexpected characters or plot twists that haven’t been introduced earlier. Many times I will have a certain twist in mind, but go back and lace in different clues in several spots so the reader can decipher the puzzle before the big reveal, but I never make it easy.

5.) Foreshadow a realistic future to come – If you don’t want to write a blatant romantic happy ever after, you can “hint” of a future for your characters. Often a forced romance or a contrived relationship can end with a marriage proposal that doesn’t “feel” real. But if the author foreshadows a more realistic relationship with the promise of a tomorrow, that might be enough for a reader to get the idea and feel positive about the ending.

 

6.) Stay true to your voice – If your author’s voice through the story is dark or starkly realistic, don’t explode pink glitter and unicorns all over your ending. A reader will feel betrayed by this. Whatever ending you choose for your character, make it realistic for the vibe of your book.

7.) Know your ending by genre or choose to be different – There’s always the exception to a general rule, but certain commercial genres have endings readers will expect. For example, an amateur sleuth will be expected to find who the killer is, or a romance relationship story will have the lovers together or with a future by the end. A thriller story will have the maniacal villain thwarted and the world restored. Not all successful stories follow this idea. I’ve written endings where the bad guy gets away with his crimes (Evil Without A Face & No One Left to Tell & No One Lives Forever), but if you dare to do this, you must have a reason (a potential teaser for a series) or a villainous character that the reader might accept such an ending.

8.) Don’t be afraid to explore ambiguous endings – If you’ve written a carefully plotted book that’s stays true to your character study, don’t be afraid to explore an ambiguous ending. A favorite book I read called The Piano Man by Marcia Preston is a women’s fiction book that has a realistic yet ambiguous ending. At first I wanted the ending to mean an HEA for the two main characters but that would’ve been a cheat. After I thought about it, the way it ended was perfect for the nature of the two characters and it was a beautiful story of two people whose lives crossed in a moment of tragedy. If the author gets the emotion right and the character motivation, there could be a variety of endings possible. Don’t be afraid to explore more than one ending that can add depth or a thought provoking conclusion.

 

Discussion:

1.) Have you ever written a forced ending that didn’t feel right to you? Did you correct it?

2.) What makes a good ending for you (as a reader or an author)?

3.) What are some of your favorite (most memorable) book endings? Were they happy endings or not?

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Finish Your Doggone Story!

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Robert Heinlein had two rules for writing:1172011_100417_0

  1. You must write.
  1. You must finish what you write.

We usually have no problem with #1. But #2 can bite us in the caboose.

What is it that keeps us from finishing a project?

It could be fear … that we haven’t got a handle on the story.

It could be perfectionism … we want the story to be excellent, but sense it isn’t the best it can be.

It could be laziness … it’s easier to tell someone who doesn’t write just how hard it is to write, than it is to actually write.

Whatever it is, it holds us up. And that’s bad for everyone, including your characters.

I find endings to be the hardest part of the craft. They have to do so much–leave the reader satisfied or, better, grateful. Wrap up the story questions. Deliver a certain resonance.

And we all know a lousy ending can ruin an otherwise great reading experience.

My own approach to endings is to have a climactic scene in mind from the start, even though it is subject to change without notice. It usually does change, because as your book grows, unplanned things start to happen. Characters develop in surprising ways; a plot twist takes you around an unforeseen corner. I’ve even had characters refuse to leave a scene when I’ve told them to. I always try to incorporate these things because, as Madeleine L’Engle once said, “If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it. The book is usually right.”

As you make these changes in your plot, the ripples go forward in time to affect how the book will end.

So you adjust. When I get to the point where I’m going to write my ending scenes, I follow a plan I call Stew, Brew, Accrue and Do.

I think hard about the ending for half an hour or so, then take a long walk, letting the story “stew” in my subconscious. My walk inevitably hits a Starbucks, because you can’t walk in any direction on earth for very long before hitting a Starbucks.

Inside I go and order an espresso. Brew.

I sip the espresso and take out a little notebook and pen. That’s when I Accrue. I jot idea after idea, image after image, doodle after doodle. I’m not writing the words of the ending, I’m just capturing all the stuff the Boys in the Basement are throwing out at me because they are hopped up on caffeine.

Then it’s back to my office where I actually Do–write the blasted thing until it’s done!

Now, even with that plan there have been a few occasions in my professional life where I get to Do and got stuck in Didn’t. I just was not finishing, for some reason or other. And I had to break through because a company had been nice enough to pay me some money and was expecting, in return, a complete manuscript. How unfair!

I always made it. And of late I haven’t really gotten stuck in Didn’t.

With one screwy exception: my novelette, Force of Habit 4: The Nun Also Rises.

I mean, I should have finished this six months ago! I was doing other projects during this time, yes, but I always came back to Force 4 trying to figure out what the heck was going on–or, rather, what was not going on–with my vigilante nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I just said to myself, “Listen, Stupid. Finish the doggone story! Or are you just a big fraud?”

“Okay,” I answered back. “How do you propose I do it? And don’t call me Stupid.”

And then I thought of Ray Bradbury.

As an L.A. resident I was privileged to hear Bradbury speak on a number of occasions. He liked to tell the story of when he was writing––or trying to write­––the script for John Huston’s film version of Moby-Dick. He was in Ireland and London for months, trying to

Bradbury

Bradbury

pare down the huge novel and all its symbolism into a filmable screenplay. Finally, Huston demanded the script.

Bradbury rolled out of bed one morning and looked in the mirror and cried, “I am Herman Melville!” Then he sat down at his typewriter and went at the keys for eight straight hours. And finished. He took the pages across town and handed them to Huston. Huston looked at them and said, “What happened?”

And Bradbury said, “Behold Herman Melville!”

Why did I think of this account? Because Force 4 was born as I was reading the biography of Robert E. Howard, one of the great pulp writers. He was, of course, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, as well as other series characters in different genres. His writing was big and wild and full of action.

Which was how I was conceiving this latest story of mine.

So I pulled a Bradbury. In my office I cried, “Behold Robert E. Howard!”

And then I wrote and wrote and finally finished the story. And it is big and wild and full of action.

But most important of all, it is done!

And now it is available for Kindle. Here’s a preview:

So tell me, writing friends. Have you ever had a real hands-on struggle with an ending? How did you handle it?

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Notes On The Sacrificial Ending

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Casablanca ending

What is the most famous ending of all time?

I’ll cast my vote for Casablanca. It is certainly the most popular. The first time you see it you can’t help but be moved. Some people weep. Others feel an uplifted respect for things like duty and honor.

And then it hits us with the famous last line: Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. 

Why does this work so well?

Let’s start at the beginning. Rick Blaine is an American running a night club in French occupied Morocco during World War II. He sticks his neck out for nobody. He’s trying to forget being betrayed by the woman he loved, Ilsa Lund.

And then she and her husband, Victor Laszlo, turn up at the club.

You know the story.

If you don’t, shame on you. Go watch the movie before you write another word.

Intrigue follows, until at the end Rick is at the airport with Ilsa, who looks remarkably like Ingrid Bergman, and she’s ready to leave her husband and go away with him.

But then Rick stops and tells her no, this is wrong. If we go through with it we’ll regret it, maybe not now but soon and for the rest of our lives.

And yet: “We’ll always have Paris. Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Rick has sacrificed the thing he wants most in this world. He has done it for a higher good (no longer will he say, “I stick my neck out for nobody.”).

He’s also put his very life on the line, for he has killed the Nazi major in front of the French police captain, Louis.

But in a stunning reversal, Louis does not arrest Rick. Instead, moved by Rick’s moral courage, he himself sacrifices his position of power to go off and fight the Nazis with Rick.

What’s happened?

Rick, who has been living as an isolated dead man walking, has offered to sacrifice his life … and has been resurrected.

Hm, why am I thinking about that on this particular Sunday?

Because the central Christian message of sacrifice and resurrection is the shaping force of our civilization. Even if one does not celebrate Easter, or is not religious at all, it must be acknowledged that there is something in us that vitally responds to a sacrifice for the greater good.

Which is why Casablanca resonates.

And why sacrifice in fiction moves us.

It can happen in genre fiction, such as Dashiell Hammet’s classic, The Maltese Falcon. At the end Sam Spade has within his reach the woman he’s fallen for, Brigid O’Shaughnessy. He loves her even though he knows she’s a liar and manipulator. But he’s a sneaky PI who had an affair with his partner’s wife, so maybe they actually belong together!

But Spade gives it up, because there’s a principle involved:

“I don’t care who loves who I’m not going to play the sap for you. . . . When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

After Spade goes through his reasons, he says to Brigid:

“Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”

“You know,” she whispered, “whether or not you do.”

“I don’t. It’s easy enough to be nuts about you.” He looked hungrily from her hair to her feet and up to her eyes again. “But I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever?”

 Finally, Brigid plays her big card.

She put her face up to his face. Her mouth was slightly open with lips a little thrust out. She whispered: “If you loved me you’d need nothing more on that side.”

Spade set the edges of his teeth together and said through them: “I won’t play the sap for you.”

She put her mouth to his, slowly, her arms around him, and came into his arms. She was in his arms when the door-bell rang.

Spade, left arm around Brigid O’Shaughnessy, opened the corridor-door. Lieutenant Dundy, Detective-sergeant Tom Polhaus, and two other detectives were there.

Spade said: “Hello, Tom. Get them?”

Polhaus said: “Got them.”

“Swell. Come in. Here’s another one for you.” Spade pressed the girl forward. “She killed Miles.”

So Spade lets the police cart Brigid off to her inevitable appointment with the noose. With this sacrifice, Spade “wins” because he has upheld the moral order of his particular universe.

Even before Christ, the resonance of sacrifice and resurrection was inside us––almost as if we’d been wired for it. Around 438 BC the Athenian playwright Euripides presented Alcestis. In this play a king named Admetus is due to kick the bucket. But he is given a gift by the gods––he does not have to die if he can find someone to take his place.

No one is anxious to step in for that particular service, except his wife, Queen Alcestis. She does this so her children will not be left fatherless and she a grieving widow. Plus, she knows he is a good king and the people need him.

Sacrifice!

Off she goes with Death, toward her eternal destiny.

Meanwhile, Heracles (the Greek name for Hercules, which is the Roman name for Steve Reeves), hears this sad tale and vows to battle Death and bring Alcestis back from the Alcestisdead.

Which he does. He returns to the palace with a veiled Alcestis. King Admetus doesn’t know her at first. But then he lefts her veil and there she is. Interestingly, she cannot speak for three days, and then is fully restored.

Sacrifice is powerful. Perhaps the reason is this: we know life is tough, and that to stand up for the good usually comes at a cost. Fictional characters who fight for what’s right are going to be wounded. Otherwise, the thing they’re standing up for isn’t all that important.

When they offer their lives, it is the ultimate sacrifice. If they survive, it is like a resurrection.

But even if they do not survive, there is still a resurrection. Their spirit will live on. Their sacrifice inspires others to change for the better and carry on the fight. Think of William Wallace in Braveheart. He can end his torture simply by confessing to treason. Instead he shouts, “Freedom!” just before the ax falls. His death inspires his followers, most notably Robert the Bruce, so they may all go on to fight like free men.

Or even the comedy Mister Roberts. The book, play and movie (starring Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon and James Cagney) were huge successes, in large part because the ending hits us with a somber jolt that is followed by the rebirth of one Ensign Pulver.

In other words, the sacrificial ending works all over the place, in any type of fiction.

But even if you don’t end with a sacrifice, at least have the conflict of the novel cost the Lead something essential. He will then emerge as a different or stronger person at the end. That’s the essence of story in a nutshell.

Happy Easter. May this day bring you blessings, joy, creativity … and some very good words for your WIP!

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The Basics of Endings

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Here at TKZ, we often talk about advanced writing techniques that go well beyond the basics. And because of that, there’s always something here for everyone—wannabes and bestsellers. I have not been writing for very long. My first book was published in 2005. Because of that, I haven’t forgotten what it wdeadend1as like to know little about writing techniques—I had a story or two struggling to get out of my head and that’s all I cared about.

When I consider the many basic tips I wished I’d know back then, I find a strong desire to share what I’ve learned. Not that anything I suggest should be taken for gospel, but some of this stuff actually works.

So many most new writers stumble and fall out of the gate. It’s why so many manuscripts fail to get published or even get considered for publication. And a lack of appreciation for the basics is a huge source of frustration later on when things aren’t clicking. There are no magic beans or silver bullets in dealing with the basics. And despite some urban legends, you won’t be initiated into a secret society of published authors with a special secret handshake. The basics are just that: basic concepts on which to build your story without letting anything block the flow of your creativity.

Today I want to discuss the basics of creating endings.

It’s obvious that a strong ending is as important as a strong beginning. Your reader should never finish your book with a feeling that something was left hanging or unanswered that should have been completed. It doesn’t matter if the ending is expected or unpredictable, it shouldn’t leave the reader with unanswered questions. You don’t want to wind up with a dead ending.

Oftentimes, beginning writers don’t successfully bring all the elements of a story together in a satisfying ending. There’s no real feeling of accomplishment at the end. Your readers have taken part in a journey, and they should feel that they have arrived at a fulfilling destination. This is not to say that every conflict should be resolved. Sometimes an open-ended conflict can cause the reader to ponder a deeper concept, perhaps an internal one. Or a more obvious reason to have an unresolved conflict is to suggest a sequel or series. But something has to occur that will give your readers the feeling of satisfaction that the journey was worth the investment of their valuable time and money.

There are a number of basic methods you can use to make sure your ending is not a dead end. Consider ending with a moment of insight. Your character has gone through an internal metamorphosis that causes her to learn an important life-lesson. Her growth throughout the story leads up to this emotional insight that makes her a better or at least changed individual.

Another technique is to set a series of goals for your main character to work toward and, in the end, are achieved. Naturally, the harder the goals, the more satisfying the ending will be for the character and the reader.

The opposite of this technique is to have the protagonist fail to overcome the main obstacle or goal in the story. The ending may not be a happy one for the character, but he can still experience an insight that is fulfilling for the reader. An example of this would be a character who truly believes that riches bring happiness only to find that true fulfillment comes with the loss of material wealth. In the end, the goals of becoming rich are never met, but he is a better person for it.

You might choose to end your story with irony. This usually occurs when the character sets out to accomplish a goal and expects a certain result only to find in the end the result is exactly the opposite. A con artist tries to pull off a big scam only to be conned and scammed by the victim. There’s an old saying that the easiest sell in the world is to a salesman. Watch The Sting.

How about a surprise ending? There’s probably never been a bigger surprise ending than the movie The Sixth Sense. A kid keeps telling a guy that he can “see dead people”. Well guess what? He sees the guy because the guy is dead. There were audible gasps in the theater at the ending of that one.

As you decide on an ending and begin to write it, think of the summation an attorney makes right before the jury goes into deliberation. The final verdict will be whether the reader loves or hates your book. Or worse, feels nothing. Present a convincing argument, review all your evidence, and walk away knowing you’ve done all you can to get the verdict you want.

——————-

Max is back! Coming this Spring, Maxine Decker returns in THE TOMB from Sholes & Moore. #1 New York Times bestseller Brad Thor calls Sholes & Moore one of his favorite writing teams.

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Don’t Kill Your Thrills With Premise Implausibility



Last week I wrote about the most important rule for thriller writers to follow, namely:
Never allow any of your main characters to act like idiots in order to move or wrap up your plot!
I think I spoke to soon. There is a second rule that is of equal import: the overall premise of the thriller must be justified in a way that is a) surprising, and yet b) makes perfect sense. 
This is not easy. Otherwise, everybody would be writing The Sixth Sense every time out. Not even M. Night Shyamalan is writing The Sixth Sense every time out! 
So what can we do to up our chances of getting our thriller ending right?
1. Think About Your Contractual Obligation 
Thriller readers will accept almost any premise at the start. They are willing to suspend their disbelief unless and until you dash that suspension with preposterousness. In other words, the readers are on your side. They’re pulling for you. You have entered, therefore, into an implied contract with them. They suspend disbelief, and you pay that off with a great ending. 
I often hear writers say things like, “Oh, I’ve got a great premise. I don’t know how it’s going to end, but it will have to end sometime. And if I don’t know how it’s going to end, then surely the readers won’t guess!” 
That is called, in philosophical discourse, a non-sequitur (meaning, “it does not follow”). I can name one big-name author right now whose last book was excoriated by readers because it had a great set-up, and hundreds of pages of suspense, and then was absolutely ridiculous at the end. I won’t name said author because I believe in the fellowship, and I know how hard this thriller stuff is to pull off. 
Nevertheless, I’ve heard said writer say (he/she/it) does not worry about how something’s going to end until (he/she/it) gets there. And said author has paid the price for it. 

2. Build the Opponent’s “Ladder”
A thriller or mystery does not begin with the hook, the body, or the Lead character’s introduction. In your story world, it always begins in the past with the Opponent’s scheme. (NOTE: this is not where you begin your book. It’s what you, the author, should know before your book begins). 
Erle Stanley Gardner plotted his mysteries with what he called “The Murderer’s Ladder.” It starts with the bottom rung and runs up to the top. There are 10 rungs:
10. Eliminating overlooked clues and loose threads
9. The false suspect
8. The cover up
7. The flight
6. The actual killing
5. The first irretrievable step
4. The opportunity
3. The plan
2. The temptation
1. The motivation
So what you, the writer, need to work out is, first, the motive for the scheme. This is in the heart and mind of the opponent. He is then tempted to action, makes a plan, looks for opportunity, etc. When Perry Mason gets on the case, with the help of detective Paul Drake, they look for clues along the rungs of the ladder, the place where the opponent might have made a mistake. 
The point of all this is, when you build your own ladder for the opponent, it will not only help your premise makes sense, it will give you all sorts of ideas for plot twists and red herrings.
3. Write the Opponent’s Closing Argument 
This is an exercise I give in my writing workshops. It’s simple yet powerful. At some point in your plotting, whether you are an outliner or a “pantser,” pause and put your opposition character in a courtroom. He is representing himself before a jury, and must now give a closing argument that attempts to justify why he did what he did. 
This step rounds out your opponent, gives him added dimensions, perhaps even a touch of sympathy. It also keeps you from the dreaded moustache-twirling villain. No stereotypes, please. 
I see a pantser in the back row, raising her hand. “Yes, ma’am?” 
“I just can’t write that way! I have to discover as I go along!” 
“And you know what you’ll discover? That you have to force an ending onto all that material you’ve come up with. So you’ll go back and try to change, mix and match, but will then discover there are too many plot elements you can’t alter without changing everything else around it, so you’ll end up compromising at the end. Sometimes you’ll make it, but even popular writers who do it this way only bat around .400 on their endings. But if you follow the three steps above, your pantsing writer’s mind will still be able to play, but play with a purpose.” 
“But . . .but . . .” 
“But me no buts! This isn’t easy, you know. If it was, celebrities wouldn’t hire ghost writers when they try to cash in on the thriller market!” 
Make sense? Have you ever found yourself backed into premise implausibility? What did you do about it? 

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Elements of a great ending

By Joe Moore

We’ve had plenty of posts here at TKZ about story beginnings. As a matter of fact, we invite submissions and devote the month of March to critiquing the first page of your stories. Beginnings are so important because they set the hook and grab the reader.

But what about endings? Are they as important as beginnings? After all, they occur after the big finale, the gripping climax, the roaring finish. In a way, we can think of endings as anticlimactic. And yet, they have an important function to perform in any story.

First, the ending should resolve anything that was not addressed during the climax. Once the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is put to bed, what’s left must be brought together as a resolution in the ending. There must be closure to anything still hanging in the reader’s mind.

The ending also answers the story question. Since the story question usually deals with character growth or change, the ending must make sure the story question is answered.

Let’s say that the main character had to stand by and watch his family perish in a terrible accident that he inadvertently caused. The story question might be: will he ever forgive himself and have the courage to find love again and perhaps start a new family? The actual plot might deal with something totally different, but along the way he finds a new love interest. Once the climax occurs and the plot is resolved, the reader must discover the answer to the story question. It has to be made clear in the ending. In most stories, the main character takes a journey, whether it’s physical, mental or spiritual. How he completes the journey is the answer to the story question and must be resolved in the ending.

Another function of the ending is to bring some sense of normalcy back to the characters’ lives. It can be the restoring of how things were before the journey began or it can be the establishment of a new normal. Either way, it must be resolved in the ending. Our hero has found a new love and plans to start a new family. It’s his new normal and the reader must understand the changes that he went through to establish the new normal.

If the story contains a theme, message or moral, the ending is where it should be reinforced. Not every story has an underlying theme, but if it does, it must be clarified in the ending. This way the reader can close the book with the feeling that the theme or message was accomplished or confirmed. The main character(s) got it, and so did the reader. Even if the reader doesn’t agree with the message, it has to be confirmed in his or her mind what it was, and if it was completed.

The end resolution of the theme or message must be in sync with the story. For instance, if the theme is to accept a spiritual belief in the existence of a greater power in the universe, the plot and characters must touch upon or address the idea somewhere along the way so the end resolution confirms that they have changed their beliefs to support or at least admit to the theme.

The ending should also cause readers to feel the way the writer intended them to feel. Whatever the emotional response the reader should experience, the ending is where it’s confirmed. After all, the writer is the captain of the ship. He steers the story in a specific direction—a direction he wants the reader to go. The reader is a passenger along for the journey. It’s important that in the end, the ship dock at the right port. Worse case is that it doesn’t dock at all. That’s the result of a weak ending.

The ending is how you leave your reader. It’s the last impression. And it just might be the reason the reader wants to buy your next book. Or not.

Have you been disappointed with an ending to a book or a movie? Did you invest the time only to come away feeling betrayed? And what book or movie do you feel contained all the elements of a great ending and left you wanting more?

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How to Write Your Last Page

James Scott Bell

It’s been a heady couple of weeks doing first pages here at TKZ. So I thought, just to catch our breath and balance things out, maybe we should go the other way for a moment.

What about your last page?

I love the Mickey Spillane quote: “The first page sells your book. The last page sells your next book.”

How true that is. How many times have we begun a novel or movie, only to be let down when the book is closed or the credits roll?

I love beginnings. Beginnings are easy. I can write grabber beginnings all day long. So, I suspect, can you.

But endings? Those are hard.

Why? First, because with each passing day another book or movie has come out, another ending has been rendered. So many great endings have already shown up. We who continue to write have the burden of trying to provide satisfactory surprise at the end when so much ending material is already out there.

Second, our endings have to tie things up in a way that makes sense but is also unanticipated. If the reader can see it from a mile away, the effect is lost.

I like what Boston University writing teacher Leslie Epstein said in a recent Writer’s Digest piece (“Tips for Writing and for Life,” WD March/April 2010). When asked if a writer must know the ending before he starts, Epstein says, “The answer is easy: yes and no. One must have in mind between 68 and 73 percent of the ending.”

Epstein’s having a bit of fun here, but his point is solid. If you have the ending 100% in mind, you’re in a straitjacket, unable to let your story sufficiently breathe, or twist, or turn.

OTOH, if you don’t have any idea where you’re going, you could easily fall into the meander trap, or the backed-into-a-corner trap.

There are some very helpful techniques for writing a great ending. Joe Moore discussed some of these last month. Type “endings” in the search box in the upper left of the blog, and you’ll get other thoughts by my blog mates. And I’ll humbly mention that I have also treated the subject in Plot & Structure.

But rather than focusing on principles, today I want to offer you my own personal approach to writing endings. It’s called Stew, Brew and Do.

Why is it called that? Because I made it up so I get to name it.

Here’s how it goes:

Step 1: Stew.

I spend a lot of time at the end of a manuscript just stewing about the ending. Brooding over it. I’ve got my final scenes in mind, of course, and have written toward them. I may even have written a temporary ending. But I know I won’t be satisfied until I give the whole thing time to simmer. I put the manuscript aside for awhile, work on other projects, let the “boys in the basement” take over.

I tell myself to dream about the ending before going to bed. I write down notes in the morning.

Step 2: Brew.

When I am approaching the drop dead deadline, I continue to outline ending possibilities. I will have files of notes and ideas floating in my head. When I know I have to finish I use Brew in both a practical and metaphorical way.

I take a long walk. There is a Starbucks half an hour from my office. (In fact, there is a Starbucks half an hour from anyplace in the world). I put a small notebook in my back pocket and walk there and order a brew—a solo espresso. I down it, wait a few minutes and then start writing notes in the notebook.

Then I walk another half an hour, to another Starbucks (I’m not kidding). There I make more notes. If I have to, I have another espresso. I am a wild-eyed eccentric at this point, but I do have ideas popping up all over the place.

Step 3: Do.

I go back to my office and write until finished.

Well, it works for me. I like most of my endings, but they were very hard work to get to. But hey, that’s good. If this gig was easy, everybody’d be doing it, right? Be glad it’s as hard as it is. Your efforts will pay off.

So what works for you? Do you find endings hard? Or do they roll out of your imaginary assembly line fully functioning and ready to go?

What are some of your favorite endings? Or better yet: what endings, to movies or books, would you change?

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Justice

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne
http://www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com/

One of the reasons many of us enjoy crime fiction is the satisfaction of seeing something so rarely provided us in our real lives – justice. As a crime writer I feel it is my duty to play fair with the reader but that doesn’t always mean that at the end of my books the perpetrators get their ‘comeuppance’.


At the end of The Serpent and The Scorpion for instance (and I’ll try to avoid spoilers here) I felt that if I was to remain true to the politics of the time I could have no other ending but, nevertheless, the injustice of the slippery Machiavellian world of the British Empire galled me.

As a reader I have no problem with these sort of endings – where justice is impossible in the circumstances – it may be frustrating but I’m okay with it so longs as it rings true. What ruins a good crime novel for me, however, is the feeling of being cheated at the end – that the writer has not played fair and that the resolution provided is a let down. On TKZ we blog a lot about the craft of writing a mystery and I think as a writer in this genre I owe it to my readers to grapple with the concept of justice in each of my books – be it in terms of retribution, punishment or some other form of satisfaction. Although we want the perpetrator to get what he or she deserve I think there’s more to it that that – I think many of want to feel as though ‘right’ has been done.

So what are the parameters for ‘justice’ that I use to help guide me when I am crafting my novels?

  • I like to consider that the effort taken in solving the mystery is commensurate with the resolution (no sudden appearances at the end of a vital clue that negates all the protagonist has done).
  • I want the final conflict to have emotional resonance (no lightning bolt hitting Doctor Evil by mere chance) so the reader feels satisfied.
  • I like to place the mystery in an overall societal context so the reader gets to understand just how the system works (or doesn’t work) and what social, political or economic conditions dictate how the perpetrator will be punished (or not) or conversely how the victim is treated. [Okay, okay, so this is just the history nerd in me…]
  • I also want to consider what kind of ending makes the most sense and feels the most satisfying to me, both as a reader and a writer. I don’t like endings that feel rushed or abbreviated – or ones that leave too many threads hanging to be satisfying.
  • And finally – at the end if justice cannot be done then as a writer/reader I better damn well know why…

So what makes an ending satisfying to you? Do you agree that most fans of crime novels like to see some kind of ‘justice’ done at the end of a book? What kind of endings fail to live up to your expectations?

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