Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Leaving the reader feeling satisfied.

By R.J. Harlick

Is there a well-known mystery in which you would have changed the ending/murderer?

We’ve all read books that enthralled us from the get go, kept us racing through the pages, panting for the end and then without warning it coughs, sputters, loses air and limps lifelessly to a close.  And we’re left feeling ripped off, cheated.

Caught your attention, eh? But I think it’s a good analogy.

I imagine most of you are like me. When you finish a good book, whose characters and storyline you’ve thoroughly enjoyed, you want to be left with a feeling of satisfaction that all is as it should be in the world of these characters.

When I read a book with a poor ending, I get annoyed with the author and rarely read another by them, particularly when he or she is a best selling author who should know better. It is almost as if they became so caught up in developing the plot that they lost sight of the ending and found themselves suddenly way over word count with a deadline looming and were forced to bring the story quickly to a close. Or they do a mind dump in an attempt to tie off all the lose ends, filling us full of information that should’ve been conveyed much earlier in the story.

One book by a best selling mystery author, whose name shall remain anonymous, made me feel particularly cheated. Though much of the storyline delved into the possible motives of several suspects, in the end the culprit was a minor bit player, who’d barely made an appearance and the motive was considerably more mundane than those of the other suspects. I felt this writer had taken the easy way out instead of using their skills as a top writer.

It doesn’t hurt for us authors to remind ourselves that one of the marks of a good story is an ending that leaves the reader feeling satisfied. We should leave them with the sense that everything has fallen neatly into place and the world is unfolding as it should. But this doesn’t mean that it needs to be a happy ending or that retribution has been met.

The most important part of the ending is that we’ve prepared the reader for it no matter how subtly. We want the ending to come as a surprise, but when it happens we want the reader to say  “Yes, of course. It could only happen this way.” To do this we writers need to plant clues, hints that point to the ending as the story progresses without revealing what it will be. If we make it too obvious we take away the fun of reading it.

You’ll notice I haven’t specifically mentioned mystery novels. Good endings that leave the reader feeling satisfied apply to any kind of novel. The ending is often what separates books that survive the test of time and those that don’t.

My apologies about the beginning, I was having fun. I know the photo doesn't have anything to do with the text. But spring has finally arrived in my part of the world, so I thought I would bring some colour into your day. By the way my furry friends are the guys, Sterling and Miss Molly.

Today’s a big day for me. I’m officially launching my latest, Silver Totem of Shame. It’s all happening at a pub in Ottawa tonight. It’s going to be a blast.


Paul D. Marks said...

RJ, I like when you say "The most important part of the ending is that we’ve prepared the reader for it no matter how subtly." We have to build a foundation for what comes after instead of pulling rabbits out of a hat. And I think that is important, as is a good and satisfying ending.

And good luck with your pub launch tonight. Hoist one for me.

Alan Orloff said...

Congrats on the new book!!!

Unknown said...

Congrats on the launch!

Your post reminds of something Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan said about the ending of his show. He said (paraphrasing) sometimes the expected ending is the one most satisfying, while the curve ball, while a surprise to the audience, can also leave them feeling set up.

RJ Harlick said...

Thanks for the congrats. Clare, as for the curve ball ending, there is no reason why they can't work. I love them. But I as the reader should be able to look back on the story and realize the hints to this ending were there all the time, I just didn't recognize them. I'm thinking of the ending to last night's Castle episode. Though it was a curve ball, there was still enough build-up to prepare the audience for it.

Meredith Cole said...

Happy launch day, RJ!

Great post on endings.

Robin Spano said...

Congrats on your launch day! And I agree--bit players as culprits are seriously frustrating.