This is the second of my structural analyses of the thriller genre. In my previous post I looked at the start or hooks for the thriller.
This post deals with the endings.
A Satisfying Climax for the Thriller
What Makes a Blockbuster Ending?
Donald Maass in The Breakout Novelist suggests, ‘The main function of the ending is to satisfactorily resolve both the inner conflicts of the main character(s) and the outer, plot-driven conflicts’.
Al Zuckerman in Writing the Blockbuster Novel believes that the key element to the climax is an obligatory scene of great emotional power.
James Smith in his book Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer recommends the following elements for a story ending:
- A final, titanic, climactic struggle, with the climax the most powerful scene;
- An element of surprise, even if minor;
- Resolution that offers redemption to the hero;
- Recognition that every element in the story pointed to the end (even better if you can plant a clue to the ending in the first one thousand words);
- Lessons learned, for both characters and readers.
The ELLE principal – Enter Late, Leave Early
(via Kill Zone post)
- ELLE – Enter Late, Leave Early maintains pace and leaves the reader wanting more.
- The TV show ‘Law & Order’ provides a good example
- ENTER LATE refers to starting a scene in the middle of the pertinent action, such as AT the crime scene staring down at the body, not the drive over in a car.
- LEAVE EARLY refers to an ending that foreshadows something or raises a question or creates more of a mystery, not showing the detectives driving back to the police station.
The Climatic Battle and Big Reveal of the Thriller
Similarly to the hooks or starts of the thriller, the endings can be categorised into tropes often used. However, although common, a good thriller for most reader has an unpredictable or surprise ending or twist to it. This is called by all sorts of names – the big payoff, climax, big reveal, battle and denouement, and any other labels you care to use.
Writing a satisfying ending is really hard to do all the time. Thriller writers should be given lots and lots of money and chocolates when they do manage to do it. Or at least send them an email when they surprise you.
- The Successful Twist Reveal – a final reveal that makes the reader slap their forehead and say, “Why didn’t I see that coming?! It is so obvious now, but somehow I missed it.” – this reveal should have been shadowed through the storyline, but obviously hidden away by red herrings or action / suspense so that the twist remains a surprise until the end. It should be logical, however, and not coincidental.
- The Big Reveal sits right on top of the Final Battle – the battle provides the climax, but the reveal provides the twists and surprises, whilst also tidying up the loose-ends.
- A Big Reveal or twist that involves the hero, rather than the villain – we are trained to expect a twist from the villain, not the hero.
- The Final Battle is played out pro-actively by the hero and villain – the hero uses their fore-shadowed skills and expertise and chooses to fight for their beliefs. They have changed over the course of the story. Yeah, even series characters need a little change in their life. Don’t bore me, Mr Bond, with your bland personality and womanising ways. And please get older like the rest of us.
Sorry, where was I?
Compare and Contrast:
- The Forced Twist– the author knows thriller readers expect a twist at the end, but has forced one into the story. This smacks of lack of shadowing, or using obvious and overplayed tropes such as –
- The bad guy isn’t really dead
- The good guy isn’t really dead
- The victim wasn’t really a victim all along – and is probably the villain too.
- The world isn’t really real…
- The Cop-Out Twist– overdone by television and cinema far too many times. (For more see below)
- This was all somebody’s dream, imagination, hell, limbo, or it all turns out to be an alternative reality/parallel world/ancient myth.
- The hero had a double personality. You suddenly find out you hate him, when before you loved him. Bummer.
- The Weak Twist –
- The outside rescue – the heroine is not active for her own final battle. She ends up strapped down to a bench, about to have her body carved up, when just in the nick of time (or as a few drops of blood are spilled, but not somewhere that will leave a disfiguring scar) she is…dum dah dahhhh…rescued by somebody else.
- The all-seeing god-like point of view narrator or worse, the close point of view hero character telling the story decided to leave out some very important information from his story. The reader never had a chance.
Common Mistakes for Thriller (or not so thrilling) endings
It is easier to list good mistakes in endings than good endings. If there are good endings, then it’s a good read, but not one I can, as an author, readily suggest, or repeat – if I go and repeat a surprise twist it’s not only no longer a surprise, but it will just become a good mistake, not to mention not original. (However, there’s only so many plots to go around, so I’m sure it’s all been done before anyway).
Coming up with a good ending is perhaps the biggest mission for the any thriller writer. There are entire websites and blog posts dedicated to polls rating the best thriller endings of films and fiction. Despite writers paying huge attention on the hooks for catching their readers, the kudos or raspberry awards for thrillers tend to come not from the beginnings, but from the endings.
That’s a lot of pressure on writers. Have I mentioned treating us with money or chocolate when we do get in a good ending would go far?
So, given it’s easier to notice the things to avoid, here they are – Here’s what I noted to avoid in the thriller ending –
- The big-bang climax that kills off all the baddies all at once – short of global warfare (or some kind of bad-guy genome seeking device), surely there is some hope of survivors – including bad guys as well as good?
- The sudden appearance of a hidden skill or tool to save the day –
- if it’s not mentioned consistently as part of the character-set of the hero, simply putting in a quick hint of it early on isn’t good enough, Mr Dan Brown. Just who could have foreseen the fact that Robert Langdon, with a fear of heights, could suddenly fly a helicopter containing anti-matter, huh?
- The whole point of an everyday hero is that we know his everyday. That, um, should include helicopter driving, gun shooting ability, martial arts experience (and not just from early childhood), any previous bomb-disposal or chemical agent experience, or handily having a relationship with the head of the FBI or a direct line to the US President.
- If they cook themselves out of trouble I want to know they are a good baker beforehand, and bake often, not that their favourite memory is of watching their mummy cook them din-dins when they were a child. If they get out of the shackles and locked underground room by putting together a cutting/key-pick and shovel tool out of their bra-wire, an elastic band off their braces and a single human hair, then I want to know that they won the McGyver impersonation contest three years running – and recently, not that they simply watched an old re-run on local television last week which handily had all the same equipment they have.
- If they have a tiny penknife hidden away in their sock, I want to know that they either put that knife there every single day (and are kind of OCD-paranoid about it), or that their mother had some kind of odd premonition to ring up and berate the hero into sticking the knife in there that very day. Nah, even that’s not good enough. Nevermind, forget the hidden tool altogether unless your hero is a secret agent.
- The rescue that takes too long. Once the actual conflict, battle and big reveal has been done, if it’s necessary to rescue the hero, make it quick. Don’t bother me with technical details of abseiling paramedics I’ve never met before, or strange dreams while the hero lies in a drug-induced coma for four months.
- The climax that forgets to resolve all the subplots. You made me read about the fiery attraction felt between the heroine and the police detective, so don’t leave me hanging and wondering if her killing the serial murderer he was pursuing gets in the way of his celebratory no-miss arrest record and won’t possibly put a slight dampener on his amour. Leaving your reader with unfinished business – or turning over the page to see if there’s any more. Bad writer! (Novels in series can have a little exemption from this, but not for characters and incidents that will no longer ever make an appearance elsewhere).
- Suddenly becoming an action thriller – a good action thriller uses action as a source of suspense throughout the story, climaxing in an even bigger slice of action for the finale. However, some new authors (and those who should know better) seem to tie thrillers and action climaxes together into the same pot, and after giving me a technical or medical thriller full of detailed procedures I suddenly have the less than muscularly endowed ER doctor swinging across high tower roofs like he was Tarzan’s second cousin all along. Or a school teacher suddenly in a shoot-out with ten baddies, where she manages to actually hit her targets, and uses her expert knowledge of triangular equations to ricochet off a kill-shot that takes the last baddy out but not the screaming child hostage held in front of him. Did anyone else not do a double-take when Dan Brown’s somewhat cerebral professor hero, Robert Langdon does a kamikaze free-fall out of a helicopter and floats down 10,000 feet on what looked like a handkerchief in ‘Angels and Demons’? But we do accept that Clark can’t be an action hero as an everyday Kent. He has to take his clothes off first.
- Evil is overcome…but is it? Version I. Not as common any more since Fatal Attraction. Subtitled: the climax revisited or double your bucks climax. The bad guy is defeated in a huge violent struggle. He dies (phew) – his body collapses in a bloody heap on the floor, or she sinks to the bottom of the bathtub, or the vat of acid handily around. Ah, ding dong, the witch is dead, the witch is dead. The exhausted and wounded but still-alive hero sighs a huge sigh of relief, manages a tentative smile, then does the most perplexing thing in the world – they go close to the body. Cue the evil-one’s hand (or skeletal hand, in the case of the acid) reaching out at them, or reaching for the gun the hero stupidly left right beside them, and the drawing in of breath from the slightly dim reader. And the hero goes into another climatic struggle to kill the baddy and save his own life. Just like the first one, only they’re all a bit more tired now. Wow, didn’t see that coming, just because it looks like there’s another ten pages of text before the chapter or book ends, you know?
- Evil is overcome…..but is it? Version II. Cue evil laugh: bwah mwah haha haaaa. Subtitled: the Serial Crime of Serial Endings. We think the evil dude is dead, he’s sunk to the bottom of the lake, all dead and stuff, right? But oh, what a shocking twist, right there on the very last page, in the very last paragraph — there are muddy footprints leading out from the lake. Wow, like I didn’t see that sequel coming, did you? Oh hang on, I get it – the suspense isn’t about him not really being defeated, it’s about how long and how many more books in the series we have to wait around for until evil dude makes a return appearance, normally mentoring a protégée evil doodling (dudette?) too. Oh, riiiighhht.
- The Sherlock Holmes IQ190 Explanation – this was okay with Sherlock. I loooovvvveee a bit of Holmes, who doesn’t? And maybe it’s okay for other classic who-dunnis like Peroit, or Miss Marple, but for any other denouement, having the expert sleuth or hero wind everything up with a exposition of all the clues or findings secondary characters or the reader missed, is, um, not on. Even if the author has tried to hide the exposition in the middle of some dialogue back at the office, as the relieved hero takes a well-earned sip over the water-cooler, and puts it all together himself. The denouement and resolution to all the plots should be seen in action, not explanation.
- Restoring the World to Happily Ever After –
- It’s nice to go back to the everyday world, isn’t it? Most heroes going on the hero’s journey eventually arrive back home after the battle. It grounds the reader back in the everyday also, how helpful. But hang on…wasn’t the hero just in a most awesome battle for their life, the world’s life, or somebody’s life? Wasn’t the world saved from destruction? Wasn’t the town’s council chambers blown up beforehand, leaving all the poor councillors with nowhere to sit? Aren’t there any, er, scars, then?
- Any crime has ripple effects on the community at large. There is such a thing as celebrating our resilience to hardship, but seriously? There’s a difference between moving on with life, and staying stagnant and dim.
- You know what’s wrong with Dr Who, the latest television series, in my opinion? It’s the fact that Earth has had numerous alien invasions, Christmas Tree invasions, a third of the population has been killed by cubes, or sucked to god-knows-where, yet the human population appears to forget about these outrages, and go back to their everyday lives awaiting the next global disaster to be saved by the good doctor. I love Dr Who, I’m just not so sure about the intelligence factor of most of the humans he’s having to rescue each year.
- Any hero or the world he lived in would have changed when he returns, it’s part of the growth we expect. Show us a little of those changes, darn it! Show us that the local parents no longer leave their children alone to play in their front yards after somebody got taken. Show us that the hero has changed her hair colour and gone for a different look after having to save herself from a serial killer who decided she had the right coloured hair for him. Show us the scars. Every child likes to show them off. It’s a right of passage.
- The Hollywood Ending –
- the first half, through to the third quarter is well and good. The psychological thriller might have you questioning what in fact is reality and what does everyone else perceive it to be. The aliens appear to be evil, with evil intentions to use humans as body part cloning machines. The war criminal does indeed look like he will choose to eliminate his entire country and never mind that his Great Uncle who he loves dearly also lives there. Or as per Star Trek, the megalomaniac ancient greater race that looks like a sparkly cloud cluster in space considers human kind to be a spot of pus on the universe’s butt.
- But then, as per any good Hollywood ending, in the last five pages, our perceptions are turned on our heads, and we learn being the butt is a good thing, because somehow pimples on bottoms are the only thing in the universe that other creatures don’t have (or human kind’s capability for love and self-sacrifice absolves us of other slightly less savoury tendencies like mass genocide, social networking instead of real life networking or racism).
- And we smile, shed a little tear, and the Hallelulah chorus comes on. Yes, everyone knows that love will always save the day. And everyone likes a feel-good ending.
- Agreed, good should prevail over evil (and the thriller takes over the role of the old day fairy tales in this portrayal) but only if we good’uns are fighting with the same rules and firepower, surely? Sometimes love can’t save the day. So somebody else betta.
Care to comment, add your own favourite bad endings, or suggest some better endings for the thriller genre? Please leave a comment.
- Tess Gerritsen: Writing the Slam-Bang thriller climax – **Spoiler alert** – the author gives away the twist ending in her book, “Harvest”
- Charlie Simpson’s Blog – research into thrillers as movies. (Credit for graph above)
- Donald Maass, The Breakout Novelist.
- Al Zuckerman Writing the Blockbuster Novel
- The Kill Zone (ELLE principal explained) – Ten Tips on Pace & Structure of a Thriller.