death is the only ending

I thought this article had an interesting premise about TV shows.

In brief, it talks about the “dangerous myth — the unwritten rule that the season finale has to be the most ‘exciting’ episode.” The article draws the comparison between the Marvel TV shows, which apparently tend to hit maximum action at the end, in contrast to Game of Thrones, “which consistently put its shocking, action-packed events in the penultimate episode of each season. This became a trope of its own, but it crucially gave each season finale room to deal with the aftershocks, add some much-needed pathos, and set up what comes next.”

I haven’t seen any Marvel TV shows (well, I think I saw an episode of Jessica Jones once), but I have seen the last few seasons of Game of Thrones, and this is certainly how that show worked, and sometimes it was very effective.

I think this applies, in a somewhat different way, to mystery stories, since the solution to the mystery, or even the explanation of the solution, isn’t the end of the story. As Rex Stout had Archie Goodwin say once, every mystery, like a kite, has a tail. (I cheerfully swiped this and used it here.).

It can be setting up the future, but you also have to wrap up the stories of the characters, particularly the ones who were affected by the crime (or whatever the thing was which needed to be solved) but who weren’t guilty of anything.

And, in the mysteries I write, I quite often end up with mysteries which are not solved, and may never be. The last story in The Jan Sleet Mysteries ends with the Golden, who I have never explained (and I probably won’t — they may be my Tom Bombadil). The last two stories have ended with Marshall reflecting on various ways that his employer is still a mystery to him.

I remember one Nero Wolfe mystery where the suspects were gathered, the solution was revealed, the murderer was taken away, and then everybody left.

Story over? Definitely not.

Archie proceeded to explain to Wolfe that everybody else may have been fooled, but Archie wasn’t. He knew that Wolfe had figured out the solution several days earlier, but he’d withheld it until the last possible moment because he disapproved of the organization which had hired him and wanted to cause them the maximum possible public embarrassment (without risking losing his fee, of course).

And then, after that, Inspector Cramer, Wolfe’s longtime adversary on the police force, came in to give him an orchid, because of the way Wolfe had chosen to expose the murderer (Cramer had, for once, been concentrating on the correct route to the solution, but his superiors had disagreed and had exiled him to Staten Island — Wolfe had made sure that they’d known that Cramer had been right and they’d been wrong).

Then the story was over. Because when you’re writing, you pick the point where it should end — there is no preset moment. Unless all the characters are dead, they’ll continue to do things the following day, and maybe showing those things would help this particular story, and maybe it wouldn’t.

Later: The title of this post came from Robert Altman, but it took me a while to find the actual quote (even though I was searching for it on my own blog, and it was here — it just took a while to find because it turns out there’s a lot of blog posts here which mention Robert Altman):

“Mr. and Mrs. Smith get married, they have problems, they get back together, and they live happily ever after. End of the movie. Two weeks later, he kills her, grinds her body up, feeds it to his girlfriend, who dies of ptomaine poisoning, and her husband is prosecuted and sent to the electric chair for it — but here’s our little story with a happy ending. What is an ending? There’s no such thing. Death is the only ending.”
— Robert Altman

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in writing. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.