In August, Family Weaver and I disappeared to south Devon for a week, and as it hammered down with rain most days, I took the opportunity to whittle away at my To Read pile. I don't tend to challenge myself too much on holidays – in fact, the less challenged I am, the better – so I took four books I was pretty sure would A) keep me entertained, and B) keep me turning the pages. They were, in the order I read them: The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth; Written in Bone by Simon Beckett; and The Reversal and Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly. As anyone who keeps half an eye on my Twitter/Facebook will know, I read The Odessa File mainly because my knowledge of classic Forsyth is embarrassing, I read Written in Bone because I absolutely loved Chemistry of Death, and anything by Michael Connelly I buy automatically – without even reading the blurb – having read his books since The Black Ice caught my eye as a teenager. They all had one thing in common, obviously, and that was the fact they were thrillers. But, after finishing the last of them – Nine Dragons, which in a maverick twist, I read after follow-up, The Reversal – I realised they were also similar in another way: to varying degrees, and despite seriously enjoying all four, I was left a little unsatisfied by how they ended.
In truth, I was probably less hard on The Odessa File on the basis that it was very of its time, written at a point in history when the thriller perhaps followed a different rule set – one not so concerned with The Big Twist. But what happened in the others – the wonderful intensity of Written in Bone, and then the left field nature of its reveal; the brilliant courtroom drama of The Reversal suddenly ending in a hail of bullets; and the brave, slick and different (for Connelly) Nine Dragons, where the entire motivation for the book is explained away in a couple of unconvincing paragraphs – got me thinking about good endings, bad endings, what made them one or the other, and what sort of impression a bad one leaves the reader with.
So… what sort of impression does it leave you with? Does it colour the whole experience? Or do you, if you've enjoyed the rest of it, forgive it its moment of weakness? As a reader, I'm probably somewhere in the middle. I'm unlikely to forget the bits a book does really well, but at the same time, when I recall it days, weeks and months after, it'll inevitably be that great book with that okay ending. Ultimately, the end – the twist, the showdown, the resolution – is why most of us stick with a book, and as it's the last breath the novel takes, your final memory of it before it goes back on the shelf, the end has to be killer.
You can probably see where this is going. Having just finished a hefty edit on Book 3, and been informed by my editor we're pretty much there now, I've been spending time trying to get some distance on it. Specifically, since getting back from Devon in August, I've been thinking about the ending. In previous blog posts, I've talked about how writing thrillers is basically one, big lie: you're always trying to second guess the reader, so you're always trying to invent some new, ingenious form of deception in order to send them off in a direction they weren't expecting. The reality, of course – and I discovered this quite quickly after publication of Chasing the Dead and The Dead Tracks – is that you can fool a lot of people, but you can't fool everybody. So then the challenge becomes a more difficult one: how do you invent an ending that will fool everybody? The only way you can really do that is by pulling something out of left field, a character or an event that you never once flagged up during the approach. You get your surprise that way – but I don't believe it's a surprise that will make the reader happy.
In the end, as I mulled over Book 3's denouement, I decided that, if some people got a sense of where it was going, or saw the reveal before it happened, I'd have to live with that. I like to think both my first two books, in different ways, surprised the reader (and, I hope, rewarded them for seeing the novels through), and, over the past few weeks, as I at first started worrying about it, and then kind of came to accept that it might be to the detriment of the story to spend too long dreaming up extra impossible-to-guess surprises (if those things even exist), I realised my ending was fine. In a lot of ways, it doesn't really matter if it pulls the rug out from under you (although I hope it does!). What matters is that readers leave the book feeling like it delivered on what came before; that the twist makes sense, that the motivation is sound, that the plot all gets resolved.
Currently, it looks like Book 3 will probably be released next summer, so this time next year I'll find out how the ending sits with readers. (I've already got fingers crossed.) Until then, I'm going to be busy on Book 4. The synopsis I'm working from is a little rough around the edges, needs some clarity added and some polish applied. But, ironically, what it needs most – because I haven't figured it out yet – is an ending.
Author of the David Raker novels