Welcome back. When last we met we talked about openings and characters.

Now let’s look at plot, clues, and red herrings. On story vs. plot, E. M. Forster said, “The king died, and then the queen died, is a story. The king died, and then the queen died of grief, is a plot.” A solid plot is the footprints in the snow of your story, and will have your readers turning pages, wanting more, and asking, “and then what happened.” A successful plot for a mystery/thriller requires a “promise,” a “dreadful situation” or what Dan Brown refers to as the “crucible” and a “ticking clock.” We have previously discussed the importance of the promise you, the author, made to the reader. You promise to solve this mystery to the reader’s satisfaction by the end of the novel—the dreadful situation with suspense and tension. And there must be a time element. It is stopping the ticking bomb at the very last second.

According to Dan Brown, adding time pressure to any character’s struggle will create higher stakes and more interest for your reader. Clues and red herrings are fun and must be sprinkled carefully throughout the novel. With clues, the reader mustn’t figure out the ending before you get there. Clues can, I think ought to, be divided among several characters and in several places. It is crucial that the clue belongs where it is. At the end of your novel, you want your reader to say, “Oh yeah, I remember that.” When using red herrings – clues that lead the reader away from the real killer or towards an innocent person, fooling the reader is cool. But misleading the reader is not. This is a fine line. In Weepers, the reader liked Nunzio; when she thought Nunzio was the culprit, she was disappointed although it made sense since he was a gangster. Later, when it turned out, it was not him, she was glad, and again it made sense. The trick is to allow the reader to find their way following whatever set of footprints they choose.

We’ve discussed the importance of keeping your promises in my first “Rewrite it” a couple of months ago, so let’s discuss how and when to end your novel. The “right” opening to your book is the crucial “hook” to keep your readers going. Likewise, the “right” ending is critical to bringing your readers back. And, although I love the idea that “Art is never finished, only abandoned” (Leonardo da Vinci), as an author, I nevertheless must decide when to type “The End.” To be clear, when writing a non-fiction book, I pretty much know at the start where it will end. But as a novelist, deciding when the book will end is more an agreement between me, the story, and one or more of the characters.

Aristotle said the ending must be a surprise and inevitable; Patterson would say the end should be the most imaginative ending that fits with the story, and so on, after a bit of research, I think there are three primary rules for a good ending.

  1. Promises Kept – By the end of the novel, in addition to answering questions raised and promises made, you must unravel the “story” with reasonable surprise. We discussed this issue in my February Rewrite.
  2. Agreement – Where, along the way, you place, “The End,” must be an agreement between you, your main character/s, and the story.
  3. Satisfied Reader – While surprise and twists are essential, at the same time, you must ensure that your reader will not feel cheated (depending on the genre – no bolts of magic, dreams, etc.) – A satisfied reader will return.

An additional thought on a series –

I do not think all series/sequel fiction should also be able to stand-alone. This is something that each author of a series must decide for herself. In some respects, it is a choice between ending with a cliff hanger (without annoying the reader) or complete the story with a few daggling questions and a sense of continued character development. For example, while I believe that I have kept my promises in Weepers, and resolved the primary mystery, in Chapter 30, two priests are talking about Angelo (a key character) and the Weepers:

I want the reader to love the ending, and the story, and the characters enough to want more.

Now, all of this assumes the reader is starting with the first book in the series. Many authors, manage to do this as an art and have also developed an extraordinary ability to give just the right amount of backstory threaded seamlessly (I prefer that to “organically”), throughout each subsequent novel in a series to inform the reader who picks up the third novel first. This reader will understand the story as “free-standing” while at the same time wanting to read earlier books in the series. This is not easy, even for the best writers, but when it works, you have a winning sequence. (Think Connolly, Patterson, DeMille, and so on).

A final thought, when there is a time gap, (from book one to book two) ask yourself three things,

1. what have they (main characters) been doing over the past, let’s say, three-years, (a) that is consistent with the characters, (b) of interest to the reader, and (c) moves the series arc along.

2. In what ways have the main characters effected the environment of the story, including each other. And finally,

3. how do you show all this to your reader without using an “information dump” not even a “as you know, Bob” dump.

According to James Patterson, the secret to a great ending of a book as well as a chapter, is to write down everything that could happen. Think through everything that happened in the story, bullet point every conceivable ending – each one down a clean page. Then pick the most outrageous one that still makes sense with respect to the story and the characters. That’s your ending.

Pick the most outrageous ending that still makes sense with respect to the story and the characters. That’s your ending!

“When my father died, we took his golf sweater (no, he wasn’t much of a golfer, but it looked nice), white shirt, and dark pants to the funeral parlor. My mother explained that his blue suit was destroyed which he would have preferred for his burial. He did love his blue suit, his only suit. Two days later we returned to the funeral parlor for a final showing. And we were surprised to see my father in a beautiful blue suit. The funeral director explained that another family arrived with their dad in this beautiful blue suit, and when they saw your father in a golf sweater, they regretted not bringing his golf sweater instead since he so loved golf. They jumped at the opportunity to switch, and I thought it would make you happy as well. I said, it does, but the fit is so perfect it must have taken you hours to make the switch. Oh, he said, I didn’t switch clothes, I switched heads.”

The ending must be inevitable and a surprise. In the strange little story above (“My Father’s Suit”), I believe it was inevitable that somehow, my father would get a blue suit; the surprise is the switching of the heads.

Remember, too; it is not about the “what” it is about the “how.”

The fun workshop here is to use the story of “My Father’s Suit” and write down five alternative endings, and then discuss them. Of course, you can also do this with any story you’ve read or movie or TV, etc., And certainly do this with any of your writing -short story, novel, poem, etc.

Thanks for being here and stay healthy and hopeful, Nick


My Seven Clues which appear in more detail in my first blog HERE and are summarized below:

  1. Finding the idea and scribbling it down. (POV, past or present, where and when – it’s not the “what” it’s the “how.” I am often asked, “Where do you find an idea?” “Must I write in third-person past-tense?”)
  2. How to Start (outline, pants, I-points or m&m). Hint, an unsolved mystery is a thorn in the heart (Thank you, Joyce Carol Oats)
  3. The Characters. Limit the number of main characters and distinguish each from the other.
  4. The Corners. Yes. You must write yourself into a corner you do not (yet) know how to get out of.
  5. The Plot, Clues, and Red Herrings.
  6. The Story and Keeping your promise to the reader.
  7. How and when to End. But it must be inevitable and a surprise. (Thank you, Aristotle).