Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Mystery of Bad Endings

I'm a writer, so I understand the two most difficult tasks in writing fiction: (1) creating an opening page that draws the reader in and compels him/her to read on and (2) giving the loyal reader a good ending that ties up all the loose ends in an interesting manner while remaining true to the characters. These are not little challenges and writers who get it right are my personal heroes.

I love mysteries and since I am currently unemployed, I've had a lot of time to read them. In the last 2 months, I'd estimate that I've read at least 20 books and I'd guess that 15 of them were mysteries. Funny enough - I don't write mysteries because I find the whole idea of working out a plot in advance too overwhelming. Maybe one day I'll be able to write a mystery. In the meantime, I can only critique them.

One thing that strikes me about mysteries, as opposed to other genres, is the alarmingly high incidence of bad endings. Not only that, the endings fall into general categories that you can define and then observe in books by many different authors. In my opinion, the bad ending types can be described as such:

The Scooby-Doo Ending

In the Scooby-Doo ending, the author goes to great pains to convince you that Bad Guy X is the culprit. All sorts of false paths are set up for you, the blissfully ignorant reader, to traipse down, convinced that you know who the bad guy is. In the end, when the hero is giving his summary of how he brilliantly cracked the case, Bad Guy X, either figuratively or literally, is revealed to actually be Nice Guy Y or some other equally mild-mannered type. I know what you're thinking - isn't that what a mystery is all about, red herrings and McGuffins and all of that tomfoolery.

Well, yes and no. The Scooby-Doo ending disappoints when it is delivered too patly, when the information comes to easily, when the proper foundation has not been laid. In The Dark Lady, Richard North Patterson does a fantastic job of creating a multi-layered story that his protagonist must unravel a thread at a time. The nuance and subtelty of his writing create a compelling mystery that's skillfully revealed at the end. He rises above the Scooby Doo ending because he's painstakingly laid the proper foundation throughout the book.

The I'm-Going-to-Kill-You-So-I'll-Tell-You-All-About-My-Diabolical-Scheme Ending

For simplicity's sake, let's call this the Sitting Duck ending. In the Sitting Duck ending, the hero has somehow gotten trapped alone with the killer. The killer is nearly always overly confident and very pleased-with-self for having thought up the Perfect Murder (TM). Burdened by a need to brag, the killer tells the protagonist every aspect of the clever plan. Sometimes, this information just confirms what the hero already suspects. Other times, it's a load of stunning bricks because the hero never suspected the killer at all. I really don't know which way is more annoying - when the hero is stupid enough to end up alone in an isolated place with someone suspected to be a killer or when the hero is too dumb to figure out the mystery without having it spelled out by the perpetrator.

The thing that irks me most about the Sitting Duck ending is that it always involves some sort of deus ex machine to come to an alleged satisfactory ending. The police bust in at the last minute. The hero discovers a hidden weapon. The killer slips and falls off a cliff. It's lazy, unimaginitive plotting, a sort of "oh geez, I'm at page 300, better wrap this puppy up" ethos that irritates me. Beth Saulnier, whose books are otherwise very enjoyable, has fallen victim to the Sitting Duck ending on more than one occassion. The award for the most aggregious Sitting Duck ending has to go to Judith Kelman for Summer of Storms. Maybe it's just because I read it recently or maybe it's because the protagonist falls into the too-stupid category. I don't know, but if you have some free time on a rainy day, you can check it out for me.

The Absent-Minded Professor Ending

With the Absent-Minded Professor ending is really more than just an ending. It's usually a pervasive running theme throughout the book. The protagonist has some sort of thought gnawing at the back of his or her mind. The thought stays there, like a brain virus, and the protagonist makes mention of it on more than one occassion. Where it messes up the ending is that inevitably, the thought just magically pops into place at the last moment. Ah yes, of course, the postmark on that letter proves that the suspect was in Seattle at the time of the murder, therefore, it must be his evil twin who did the killing.

The Absent-Minded Professor ending can be combined with the Sitting Duck ending or it can stand on its own. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone should be taking mega-doses of gingo biloba, so often does she fall into Absent-Minded Professor-dom. Jonathan Kellerman sometimes has Alex Delaware suffer from the condition, although Milo provides a solid counterbalance. (Interestingly enough, Stephen White, another shrink-turned writer, has a similar dynamic going with Alan Gregory and his policeman friend Sam.) I haven't taken an exhaustive study of this, but I would wager that in 9 cases out of 10, the Absent-Minded Professor ending happens in a book that's written in the first person. I think this is because of the difficulties inherent in the narrative, namely it's difficult to follow the golden rule of writing (Show Don't Tell) when your main character is narrating the story.

That's my take on the mystery of bad endings. If you want to read some writers who get it right, I'd check out Richard North Patterson (especially Silent Witness, which walks a tightrope but delivers in much the same way Dark Lady does), Ian Rankin (especially A Question of Blood and Resurrection Men) and John Grisham's The Partner.

Happy Reading!


At 17 June 2005 at 21:27, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm-Going-to-Kill-You-So-I'll-Tell-You-All-About-My-Diabolical-Scheme Ending

That's so annoying. "Well Mr. Bond instead of shooting you point-blank with the gun that is in my hand I will be filling up some plot holes."

Wouldn't it be satifying if Ian Fleming had just flipped out and had him dead within the first chapter?

- Shane

At 20 June 2005 at 09:46, Blogger -Ann said...

It would have been highly satisfying. But only if Mr. Bond wasn't really Mr. Bond but was old Jim Higgins from the County Feed Store. And he would have gotten away with it too if it wasn't for those meddling kids!

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