“The first chapter sells the book. And the last chapter sells the next book.” --Mickey Spillane
No other part of the crime novels I read disappoints me as often as the ending. No other part of the books I write makes me crazy the way the ending does. You can have a great plot, wonderful characters, atmospheric setting, graceful writing, but if the ending is lame or over-the-top or seems grafted on from some other subgenre, that’s what readers will remember. If they hate the ending of your current book, they might not bother reading the next.
Does any other genre place such a heavy burden on the poor writers who are just trying to find a good way to wrap it all up? Both critics and readers complain about “formulaic” crime fiction, but at the end, the formula is what they want. They want a confrontation between villain and protagonist. The motive behind the crime must be explained, which often leads to ludicrous scenes in which a killer blathers on and on about his actions, while holding the protagonist’s life in his hands. Once the full confession is out, the hero or heroine calls on inner reserves of strength and ingenuity, good triumphs over evil, and the world is set right again. Never mind that this sort of thing almost never happens in real life. In crime fiction, it’s expected, and if the writer doesn’t deliver it, the majority of readers will feel cheated.
And it all has to be suspenseful, exciting, scary, even though the reader knows how it will turn out.
In trying to lend originality to the formulaic ending, some writers have gone in for ever-bigger and more spectacular concluding action. Reading these over-the-top endings, I’m never sure whether the writers were desperately reaching for something new to excite fans or simply trying to keep themselves from falling asleep out of sheer boredom with the formula.
When I was struggling recently with the ending of my own work in progress, I asked some writing friends, published and unpublished, what they want to read -- and write -- at the end of a crime novel. Most of them have the same complaint I do about weak or preposterous climaxes.
Sheila Connolly, aka Sarah Atwell, who has two mysteries coming out from Berkley Prime Crime next year, said, “I know more than one book that I’ve enjoyed thoroughly -- up until the end, when it read as though the writer had simply run out steam and wanted nothing more than to finish the bleeping story. I’ve also read too many where the killer came out of left field at the end. Readers want closure, but we also want it to be believable, not contrived.”
The ending must answer what Lori Lake, author of Snow Moon Rising, calls “The Big Question” -- the central conflict that drives the entire story. “Your opening promises something, and in order for your ending to work, you must fulfill that promise.”
Darlene Ryan, author of Saving Grace and Rules for Life, admits to enjoying climactic scenes where the protagonist is in physical danger -- although “I know it can get preposterous in long-running series.”
K.B. Inglee, on the other hand, doesn’t require that the protagonist be endangered, and if he or she is, “I have a tendency to skip over that part.” Still, she adds, “the wisdom is...gotta have a threat, even do damage to your protag.”
Nobody wants to return to the style of mystery writing that has the sleuth explaining everything in great detail at the end. “I hate endings where the detective explains what happened," says Leslie Budewitz of LawAndFiction.com. "I want to figure it out with the protagonist.”
What about epilogues that take the characters beyond the climax? “I usually stop reading once the murderer is uncovered,” K.B. says. But others want more. “After the killer is caught,” Leslie says, “I like a short chapter -- two to three pages -- that gives a bit of wrapup that shows me how the protagonist and the victims or other characters are doing in the next few hours or days.” Sheila has “mixed feelings” about epilogues but believes they can be “intellectually satisfying.” Janet Koch, however, loves them. “I typically enjoy epilogues tremendously, especially when I’ve grown to love the book. Feels like a little treat at the end, or maybe an extended goodbye.”
Not everyone in my mini-survey demanded that the villain be brought to justice. “Sometimes,” Jaye Stock said, “the villain can carry over to another book. Even if the villain is carried over, there [must] be a sense of completion and closure to the story -- a stopping place for the current work.”
Everyone agreed on these points:
The ending must be logical, flowing from the events of the story. It can’t depend on a previously unknown fact or character.
The ending must be appropriate in tone to the story as a whole. The writer can’t turn a cozy into a thriller in the final pages and expect readers to be happy.
The plot and the ending must be plausible. “It ruins the story for me,” Bobbie Gosnell said, “if my final thought on the book is, Give me a break.”
Oh, and one more thing: Modern crime novel protagonists, in contrast to Miss Marple, Poirot, and Holmes, must show “growth and change” by the end of every book. But that’s another topic.
What do you want in an ending? Do you care whether the protagonist is endangered? Do you mind if the villain gets away? How far can a writer go without making you throw the book against the wall in disgust?