Writing the Wrap Up Right

Writing the wrap up right is just as critical to writing a satisfying ending as crafting a thrilling climax. The wrap up, or denouement, is the section of the ending after the climax in which loose ends, or most of the loose ends, are tied up and explained. A well-constructed wrap up to a mystery is especially crucial. Readers expect all the clues and red herrings to be explained and the detective’s reasoning that led to the successful solution to the crime or crimes to be laid out in a clear and entertaining way. The risk in the mystery wrap up is bogging it down with unnecessary details and boring readers before they can finish the story. Here are a few techniques I’ve learned as I’ve written both mystery short stories and a novel.

Explain some clues and red herrings before the wrap up.

Because most of my stories are fair-play mysteries, I present the clues and red herrings to readers as the detective discovers them. That also means readers are let in on some of my detective’s thought processes. So instead of explaining every clue at the denouement, I have my detective reveal the significance, or lack thereof, of certain clues where it makes sense in the process of her investigation.

But I ran into trouble when I wrote the short story “Bovine”. Readers follow this story from the POV of the villain. Only at the end do they find out what the detective was up to while the villain was at work on his crime. That meant one big ol’ explanation at the wrap up. So how could I make the wrap up interesting while also clearly outlining the solution?

Have other characters participate in the denouement.

Of course, when a detective reveals his solution, there has to be some kind of audience. But gone are the days when Hercule Poirot could talk for paragraphs and pages without comments from the members of his audience. In “Bovine”, I have the investigator explain what the villain was planning to an interested party. And I make it as much of a dialogue, rather than a monologue, as I can to hold readers interest. To help that goal …

Add humor if appropriate.

This won’t work for every story, but it does in mine. While the investigator speaks, he adds dry or sarcastic observations. For example, the investigator spoke to a colleague of the villain to get background information. Earlier in the story, the villain made condescending remarks about this colleague. In the denouement, readers learn what the colleague’s opinion of the villain is: “By the way, Ms. Novak seems to’ve been waiting her whole life to dish the dirt on Harrison Sharpe.” The interested party responds with “The entire New York literary community has.”

My hope is that these humorous additions will keep the wrap-up from becoming too dry or boring. But, above all else, when wrapping up a mystery …

Make the Explanation Clear

This is not the time to show off your literary skills or try some avant-garde technique. Keep your prose to the point: how the detective solved the mystery. Remarks from the characters who are listening to the explanation and humorous asides can’t confuse or slow the denouement.

Your turn. What wrap ups have your read or watched that were especially effective?

Make Your Climax Fresh

Yes, but how do you make your climax fresh? Especially in genre fiction where readers have certain expectations which must be met in order to satisfy them. If the male and female lead characters don’t end up together at the end of a romantic comedy, the story doesn’t really qualify as a romantic comedy. If the mystery isn’t solved, it’s still mysterious but it leaves mystery fans angry.

Here are three tips to make your climax fresh.

Know Your Genre.

Read a lot in your genre and not just books being published now, but classics from the past. As a mystery writer, I reread Agatha Christie because first, I enjoy her stories but also to see how a master plots. If you don’t understand what all the fuss is about Sherlock Holmes, you should read some of those stories to figure it out because he started the tradition of the brilliant, logical amateur detective. (Sorry, Edgar Allen Poe. Although your amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin was first, Holmes has had far more impact.)

Keeping current on what’s being published in your genre may seem overwhelming. One way to stay on top of it is to notice what’s most popular. If you can’t read them all, at least read reviews in review journals. If the book has a review in Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, or Book Page, it’s fairly well-known.

Choose Unusual Settings.

Once you understand the kind of climax your genre expects, you can explore how to give it a fresh twist. One way is to choose unusual settings. If those are based on your personal experience, even better. I know a missionary family who has lived in Jordan, Sudan, and Uganda. If one of them wanted to write a mystery, setting it in one of those countries would provide a lot of fresh raw material for English-speaking readers because of the differences in culture and climate. Setting a climax during a sandstorm in Sudan would bring different aspects into play than if you set in it an alley in New York City. But even better than using a fresh setting is to …

Create Fresh Characters.

Your climax brings your protagonist and antagonist into the most intense scene in the story. This intensity should bring out who they are at their core. While writing the climax for A Shadow on the Snow, I was having serious trouble making it fresh. After two runs at it, I still was unsatisfied with the ending. But then I allowed my teen detective to behave within the boundaries of her established personality and values. And I let the stalker she was confronting act out of his training and family history. Then I had a climax that made sense for these characters and had a fresh twist while still providing a satisfying ending to the mystery.

I’d love to hear from you! What make a climax fresh for you?

Formula of a Climax

You’ve written a great hook at the beginning. You’ve put twists and turns in your middle. Now comes the end. You’ve got to pull out all the stops for the climax as a reward to your readers for coming this far into your story. But how? Using Star Wars: A New Hope, I’ll explain the formula of a climax because (1) almost everybody knows the movie and (2) after spending the past six months enveloped in its universe since my oldest became a fan, I should put all that I’ve learned from him to good use. I would love to dissect the climax to one of my mysteries but (1) my publishers would not appreciate me revealing the ending and (2) nothing is worse for a mystery fan than a spoiled ending. But the anatomy of A New Hope will work in any genre.

Components of a Climax

The whole beginning and middle are establishing viewers expectations of the climax, if a writer has done her job. By the time the plans for Death Star get in the hands of the rebels, viewers are expecting three things in the climax:

  • Some kind of rebel assault on the Death Star. The Death Star is the symbol of the evil Empire, and the Empire is the antagonist so it must be involved.
  • Luke Skywalker plays a critical role in the assault. He’s the protagonist, so he must have the main role in confronting the antagonist in the climax.
  • The Force figures into the climax. After all the talk about it, if it wasn’t involved, viewers would wonder why it was included in the first place.

There’s the formula for your climax: Antagonist x Protagonist x Theme = Climax. Or A x P x Th = C. (My youngest has been drowning in Algebra lately, so I might as well put that to good use too.) I’m using multiplication because usually when you multiply, you usually get a greater answer.

Digging into the Formula

The antagonist. Not only must the Empire be involved in the climax, it must be an active participant. It has to make things happen in the climax, not just have action happen to it. In A New Hope, the Death Star is positioning itself to destroy the rebel base. Very good. But even better is when Darth Vader gets in his fighter to personally shoot down rebels ships. The antagonist is making things happen in the climax.

The protagonist. The same rule applies to the protagonist. The climax can’t happen to him. He has to make things happen in the climax. So Luke engages in the small-ship assault on the Death Star and ends up being the last ship capable of firing the potentially fatal shot.

The theme, The use of the Force, for good or evil, is the underlying theme and it must be a critical factor in the making the climax happen. So Luke uses it to aim the fatal shot. Not every story has a theme. Sometimes, the genre acts as the theme of story, tying other elements together. Which brings me to …

One More Variable

I need to add one more variable to our formula for a climax. And that’s G=genre. Your climax needs to follow the rules of the genre you’re writing in, or your readers will close the book disappointed. A New Hope is a sci-fi/fantasy epic. The climax must have epic stakes–death of a whole planet, death of most of the rebels opposing the evil empire. If I put on the back cover that my novel is a mystery, and then my detective never uncovers the culprit, readers will throw my book against the wall.

So now our formula reads: (A x P x Th) + G = C. Or (A x P) + G = C.

Next time, I’ll write about the very difficult task of freshening the formula of a climax while still fulfilling the rules of your genre. For another post on endings, click here.

What book or movie had the perfect climax?

Three Elements That Every Ending Must Have

No matter what genre you write, the three elements every ending must have are the climax, the denouement or wrap-up, and the last lines. If one of these three things are missing, readers walk away unsatisfied, perhaps not realizing why, just aware that a particular story let them down, and they will tell their friends that it “didn’t have a good ending.”

Since I’m focusing on endings this month, I’m reposting the explanations for these three elements of an ending so that in future posts, you’ll understand what I’m writing about.

The Climax

My Webster’s dictionary defines the climax as “the point of greatest intensity in a series of events.” As I wrote to the climax of my novel, A Shadow on the Snow, I had to make sure that I kept building the tension by raising the stakes for my main character. Half way through the novel, I have an action sequence that puts a big twist in the plot. I wanted to make this scene suspenseful and exciting, but not more than the climax. It’s like a fireworks display. It’s all right to set off some really big fireworks in the middle, but I need to save the most impressive ones for the end.

The Denouement

Or the wrap up, where the loose ends of the plot are tied up. This is especially important in a mystery. In the climax, the detective reveals who the culprit is. In the denouement, he must explain how he solved the mystery. The danger with this part is I will write on and on, drawing out the ending, deflating the thrill of the climax. 

That was a complaint of many people who watched The Return of the Kingwhen it came out in 2003. The climax was when the One Ring was destroyed in the flames of Mount Doom. The movie continued for fifteen or twenty minutes, resolving character developments and plot points. I didn’t mind because I’d read the novel and expected these scenes. But other people thought the denouement dragged on too long.

On the other hand, I don’t want to end too abruptly. We’ve all watched shows or read books where the storyline doesn’t so much ends as quits, as if the writer lost interest. My kids pointed this out when they watched The Rescuers Down Under. In this Disney cartoon, a little boy is kidnapped by a poacher, who is hunting a rare bird. The boy is rescued, the bird saved, but my kids felt they should have shown the boy being reunited with his mother. It was a loose end left dangling.

Last lines

I struggled with this in my novel because it’s so important. It’s literally the last thing people read and probably one of the things that sticks with them. Whatever mood, message, or feeling I’m trying to convey throughout the story should be there in the last lines.

For my short story, “A Rose from the Ashes”, I wanted an ending that would leave a smile on the face of readers. The climax is very emotional as my MC confronts the three men who could be her father and the one who tried to murder her mother. I wanted the last lines to be lighter but still carry the deep meaning of Rae finding her father. 

I was inspired by the way Alfred Hitchcock ended The Man Who Knew Too Much. Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day play American parents, unwittingly involved in an international assassination plot. Their son Hank is kidnapped, and they chase the criminals across Europe, thwart the scheme, and rescue Hank unharmed in England. A few of their English friends have been waiting for them at their hotel. When the reunited family walks in, Jimmy Stewart says, “Sorry we were gone so long, but we had to pick up Hank.” I like how that line is perfectly honest, but the audience knows the true meaning while the friends only take it at face value.

What books or movies have great endings? Which ones have lousy ones?

Mapping the Middle

Once again this year, I have a new author to introduce to you! I met Alexandra Ely online and I’m so pleased to have her thoughts on mapping the middle. When Alexandra refers to the second act, she’s talking about using the three-act structure to craft a plot. If you’re unfamiliar with this kind of plotting, you can read this post which will give a basic description.

Writing a story is much like mapping a new territory and it’s just as easy to get lost in your own world as it is in the real one. It’s especially easy to get turned around in the middle section of your novel if you’re not prepared. In this post, I’d like to share with you some of the tools I have learned to bring with me when I venture into a new story. 

When you reach the beginning of act two, it’s as if you’re standing at a crossroad with multiple options. It can be overwhelming because many of them are plausible paths your characters can take to get them from act one to act three. This was an element of writing that surprised me when I first started. 

It was frustrating and slowed me down considerably. I was uncertain which was the “best way”. So many ideas could happen and many of them worked equally well. Often, writing can feel like a waste of time – something we all want to avoid – causing a sense of pressure to get it right the first time. However, I have found this feeling to not be true. The scenes you don’t use are the ones you learn from the most. Not just about the mechanics of writing, but of your characters and story’s world.

Navigating the Middle

Here are two things I have learned that help me navigate and map the vast middle portion. 

  1. Brainstorming and outlining: Enjoy the endless possibilities the middle has to offer instead of being overwhelmed. Start by choosing an idea, any one works for brainstorming. See where this path leads. Jot down big picture notes along the way in case you like something specific. Try this with each idea. Soon you will have a map of the many routes your characters could take from act one to act three. The choice then comes down to your favorite. I have found that embracing and exploring the options -instead of being locked into one immediately – makes writing the middle flow smoother.
  2. No scene is a waste of time: Some ideas will lead you to dead ends. I recently wrote such a scene and felt deflated and frustrated afterward. However, I realized that it was as if this idea led me to a vista. Here I could see where I had been and where I wanted to go. It was a vantage point! I was able to identify what didn’t work and why and was able to apply that to the next idea, which ended up working quite well.  

Even if an idea leads you down a dead-end path, sometimes we just have to write them for ourselves. This information will not go unused even if it doesn’t make it into the final cut. There is a depth of complexity that aids us as creative writers when we can see any scene from multiple angles. The more you write about your story’s world, whether it be a fantasy realm or not, the stronger your knowledge of it becomes and it will show in the final draft. 

While the middle is the largest chunk of your book, I encourage you to tackle all that it has to offer. I hope this helps you to face your current writing struggles and that soon you will find the best-suited path to get you going again. Writing a novel is a journey and adventure like hiking any trail. 

For more tips on writing the middle of stories, click here.


Alexandra Ely grew up in the High Desert of California where she played outside, cultivating the imagination she uses for her creative writing to this day. In high school she studied under an old Russian playwright who taught her the delicacies of storytelling. She continued to pursue novel writing in college.

This September Alexandra and her husband will celebrate their ten year wedding anniversary and expect their second baby a few weeks after. Alexandra loves sewing historical fashion, baking sourdough bread, and would like to teach herself calligraphy someday so she can write epic Christmas cards. 

Much of her nonfiction writing has been published in both local and national magazines and a prologue to an anthology published internationally. Publication for her fiction work is close at hand. Currently, Alexandra and her writing partner are querying their manuscript and on her own she is editing a second book with intentions to publish as well. You can hear a sample of her novel, The Mermaid Bride, on the Happy London Press podcast and find her personal instagram account @ely_landing and her collaboration account @loftonauthors.

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