Friday, December 12, 2008

On surprise endings

I like Deon Meyer's sentences, and I like the glimpses his novel Dead Before Dying offers of daily life in post-apartheid South Africa.

The novel's Mat Joubert is also a believable example of the damaged police protagonist, his everyday struggles perhaps easier for the reader to identify with because of their very homeliness. A damaged protagonist need not be a total wreck in order to involve readers.

I'm less sure about the novel's ending, its solution to a string of killings that have galvanized much of South Africa's media and thrown a nervous police hierarchy into near-panic. The killer is, in fact, plausible, and Meyer lays some especially convincing false trails. I never guessed beforehand who the killer was, but I didn't slap myself in the forehead either and exclaim, "Oh my god, that's right!" when I did find out.

So, what makes for a successful shock ending? For an unsuccessful one? Give examples — if you dare.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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23 Comments:

Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

Peter-

Good question, which means it's difficult to answer.

I like to think of a plot this way: its ending should be foreseeable, but not predictable. To better explain, when you reach the end of a story, you should be able to say "I didn't see that coming, but it makes perfect sense, because of x, y, and z."

However, I may have to revise my theory since reading your post. It seems like the author did just that for you in DBD; however, the big reveal itself didn't affect you on an emotional level for some reason. I wonder why. Perhaps the bigger picture of the story didn't engage you? Perhaps the revelation of murderer didn't correlate to that bigger picture? I don't know, and you probably don't want to post any spoilers.

December 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or perhaps you're letting the reader off the hook too easily. I may not have read as attentivel as I should have, which may be saying the same thing in a different way.

You're right about how a reader ought to react to a surprise. I could not give an x, y and z for this book. The killer's access to the victim's was plausible, so maybe I we can call that an x. But the y and the z weren't there for me.

December 12, 2008  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

Tough to ask you more without getting into specifics.

I get a similar reaction when I read Martin Cruz Smith books. Loved Gorky Park, but his later stuff feels so hollow to me. When I get to the end, I usually end up saying to myself, "Oh, he was the killer. Okay" and then shut the book.

December 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, tough to discuss this without details. This discussion would be better suited to a reading group.

I said to myself, "Ah, so that was the killer. Yeah, I'd want to kill if someone had done that to me," and then I shut the book.

December 12, 2008  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

Yeah, much better suited to a pub--I mean, a reading group setting.

By the way, are you a speed reader? You get through this stuff pretty quickly.

December 12, 2008  
Anonymous marco said...

The identity of the kidnapper in The Bloomsday Dead was a surprise,though this is probably more an indication of how dense I am than anything.
Surprise endings are so frequent in mysteries it's difficult for me to single out particularly good or bad ones.
One that's decidedly different is the ending of An Instance of the Fingerpost.

December 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian: I say this might be better suited to a reading group because then no one would have to be coy about revealing the ending.

I read fairly quickly. I also save time by not cleaning my house, not shopping, and generally not maintaining myself the way a civilized person ought to.

December 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know about your density, Marco. The kidnapper's identity in The Bloomsday Dead surprised me, too.

It may be relevant that Dead Before Dying was if not Deon Meyer's first novel, at least an early one. Maybe he was still figuring out how to spin out a plot, lay false trails, and write a surprising but, in retrospect, inevitable culprit.

December 12, 2008  
Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

I can almost never guess endings, so they are usually a surprise for me anyway. But I actually did not like the famous eveyone-did-it ending of Agatha Christie's MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, seemed too contrived and put-there-to-surprise-the-reader, if you know what I mean.

December 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have not read the book, but I saw the movie. The ending must be one of the more elaborately contrived in all of crime fiction, and I suspect Christie wrote it for the very reason you suggest. But she deserves some respect for coming up with an ending that weird. Imagine being given a task of assigning credible motives to that many suspects, then coming up with a resolution that implicates the killers the way Christie did. That can't be easy.

Your posting here is timely, as I have just passed on to you one of those little honors that we bloggers receive and are asked to bestow from time to time.

December 12, 2008  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

Peter and Marko--
The identity of the kidnapper in TBD caught me unawares too. I thought THAT was an awesome twist.
B

December 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If only it left the way open to another Michael Forsythe novel. But I think McKinty has said that Forsythe has come too close to death too many times to get away with it for another book. And a Michael Forsythe who spent a entire book bragging and reminscing about past adventures would not be the one we've come to know.

December 12, 2008  
Blogger Brian O'Rourke said...

I think you're right. I can't see Forsythe plausibly going through any more harrowing adventures without turning into a James Bond-type. Who konws, though. If anybody could figure it out, it'd be McKinty.

December 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe an again Michael Forsythe will one day be haunted by the ghosts of his troubled past.

December 12, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

If Arthur Conan Doyle is any indication, authors don't always get to decide whether there characters have no more stories left in them. In Michael Forsythe's case, we must wait and see.

I am hard-pressed to think of a really shocking surprise ending, though I know there must have been some. Often with classics, the ending has leaked in somehow through general cultural osmosis, so you have some head's up that you will be surprised. Surprised, yes, but rarely shocked.

v word=colicluo. As in 'why is the baby crying? Oh--that's a colicluo.' Not to shabby for a mystery-themed thread, WV.

December 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, colicluo is part of the famous operatic number "Colicluo, coliclua." Imagine Pavarotti singing it.

I dunno, if someone came up and tried to bring Michael Forsythe back a la Sherlock Holmes, Forsythe might say, "Sod you!" and push him into Reichenbach Falls.

December 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

But seriously ... I shall try to think carefully about the next several endings as I come to them. I suspect there are not many true shockers, that a great suspenseful ending has the reader guessing, maybe correctly, but being made agonizingly to wait for the revelation. Perhaps Meyer's ending tries a little to hard to be a shocker -- to avid giving away the killer's identity -- when it might better have concentrated on the buildup.

December 13, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Yes, I'll be watching the endings more carefully too.

Peter, as regards 'colicluo': I've learned from the myriad improv groups that have sprung up in Santa Cruz that you never say no to an 'offer', you say 'yes, and'. I am sure our Word Verifier dictionary has many entries per word, should all be known.

As for Michael Forsythe, well, it's not actually up to the character, at least according to Doyle's experience. The public didn't beg Sherlock to rise from the dead, they lobbied Doyle to the point of capitulation. I'm not sure without further research what finally broke Doyle down, but when I find out, watch out, Mr. McKinty. It might be something as simple as badly played musical instruments...

v word=insipses One example of usage? "How do you drink very hot coffee? Insipses."

December 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like that suggestion. We "arrange" for the saxophone player to stop, then, just when the neighbors are ready to relax, we bring in a bad violinist.

December 14, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

You know, Peter, there are just so many possibilities...

Forced to it, we could probably hire Bono to move in.

December 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, god, no.

December 14, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

Oh, yes. You see, when people blog frequently, it doesn't take much to figure out the most effective way to break them down. You just get out your little note pad and then scroll down.

It's there. It's always there.

v word=scariar. See? Even the W. V. is frightened, though, as per usual, a notably poor speller. Or perhaps that should be 'spellar'.

December 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yeah, Bono. Adrian could use someone to talk to while he listens to his neighbor play that sax.

My v-word means screeching, ill-behaved children from another planet: bratiods.

December 15, 2008  

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