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?