f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: The End.

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, June 07, 2004

The End.

Joe at Word Foundry talks about endings.

The most absurd ending for me EVER is for a spy/techno-thriller called The Day After Tomorrow. (Has nothing to do with the movie.) Anyway, there's a secret being kept throughout the entire book and it's finally "explained" in this 752 page book's last sentence.

And this goes to something Chris asked in the comments section and here about "Twist/Surprise Endings." He got some advice at one point to avoid them.

I don't precisely parrot that advice, but we need to at least be conscious of two things.

One: they're damn hard. So hard in fact that they need to be modified by a third-tier swear word. (I will explain levels of swearing someday. It's a study in pseudo-Pharisism by a buddy and I trying to figure out what we could and could not say in certain kinds of company.)

You have two options in pulling a surprise ending. First, you can try to bury the clues in the text. Do it well and readers will love you. Do it poorly and they'll think you're an idiot. Your other option is to simply hold onto a crucial bit of information. Arthur Conan Doyle did that a lot. In one of my more Rain-Man like moments, I read every Sherlock Holmes story out there one summer and he just never gave you enough information to solve the case yourself. Royally annoying after a while.

Two: this isn't a movie. Assuming you've written a book of any length,(in short stories, you can try the bait-and-switch) readers have invested themselves in your story and characters. It's not an hour-and-a-half lark. They're not particularly looking to be yanked around...unless you set it up that way early on. James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential packs some big surprises at the end. Many mysteries do. Michael Connelly is like reading a C.S.I. episode. You're always digging through red herrings, before he suprises you. But those stories set you up to expect twists. It would make a lot less sense if Boo Radley suddenly turned out to be Atticus in disguise, you know?

So, in response to Chris, I'd never say you shouldn't try a surprise ending. In fact, if you're writing a mystery you pretty much have to take some sort of stab at it, but you just need to make sure it works.

And don't put your big surprise ending in the last sentence or some idiot like me will turn to it, read it, and discover just whose head is in the big box everyone is after.