Back when Lost became a TV phenomenon, I watched the first season and was just as hooked as everybody else. Man! Each episode ended with an inexplicable and shocking mystery, and I had to keep watching.
A group of my writing friends were also caught up, posting how fabulous this all was.
But then came the second season, and I posted a warning. “It’s easy to come up with a cliffhanger if you don’t have to explain it. The day of reckoning is coming. I think you’re going to be massively disappointed.”
“Bah,” came the answers. “The show is great!”
“Just wait,” I said.
Well, the day of reckoning finally came. I was on Twitter while the final episode was showing. It was a madhouse of frustration and even rage, with an occasional defense that got ratioed badly.
Some time after this, leaked documents and private conversations with the writers came out. One of the writers was asked by his friend, “How are you going to pay all this stuff off?” And the writer answered, “We’re not. We literally just think of the weirdest most f****** up thing and write it and we’re never going to pay it off.”
But for those of us who write mysteries and thrillers we hope will sell and make fans, that’s not how we roll. We all want a satisfying, resonant ending.
I can write opening chapters all day long that’ll grab you by the lapels and get you flipping to Chapters 2, 3 and beyond. But wrapping up a twisty plot in a way that is both unpredictable and convincing? That takes some work.
That’s why, before I start writing, I have to know who the bad guy is, his motive, and his secrets. It takes imagination and brainstorming. That’s why one of the greatest plotters of the pulp era, Erle Stanley Gardner, spent hours walking around, talking to himself, working on what he called “the murderer’s ladder” before he wrote one word of a new story.
The murderer’s ladder was Gardner’s way of showing the step-by-step machinations of the villain, from the initial act of treachery (usually murder) through the first attempts at cover up, and then progressive steps to keep from getting caught.
The worth of this pre-work is that all of the villain’s steps are “off screen” in what I call the shadow story. Knowing the shadow story is the key to plotting mystery and suspense. You know what the villain is planning (the reader does not) and that spills into the present story in the form of red herrings and various ways the villain attempts to evade, frustrate, or even kill the hero.
In working out the murderer’s ladder, you avoid having to rely on a contrived ending to wrap things up.
Plus, as you outline (or just starts writing, if that’s what floats your boat), the plot starts to unfold almost automatically. I say almost because your main task now is to avoid predictability. When you know the shadow story, that’s easy. You can pause at each step and ask yourself: What is the best off screen move the villain can make? Also, ask yourself what the typical reader would expect to happen next—and then do something different. If you work off the shadow story, the ending will ultimately make sense.
Of course, your ending is subject to change without notice. Sometimes a new twist ending occurs to you as you close in on the final pages. That happened to me with Romeo’s Town. The nice thing was, the steps on the murderer’s ladder were the same. All I had to do was tweak them a bit.
Yes, endings are harder than beginnings. They’re also more important, because that’s the last impression you make on the reader. It’s what sells, in Mickey Spillane’s axiom, your next book.
The ending of this post is brought to you by The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings.