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?

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