Endings and Undoings

In the mystery course I recently taught, we found the ending of Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced to be both disconcerting and glorious. There are many wonderful aspects to her writing, but we were most engaged by how she gracefully “undoes” the characters we felt we knew because she had built them so convincingly.

source: pixabay

On the flip side, we were slightly less excited about Edgar Allan Poe’s solution to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—mostly because there was no character to be undone. Poe’s story is of course important for many reasons, not the least of which is that he is a brilliant writer who is basically creating a new genre by showing us a great mind in action via C. Auguste Dupin. There is much to admire. But still…that ending! Quasi-spoiler alert (which I hope you’ll forgive since the story came out more than a century ago): a human is not responsible.

One of the delicious thrills involved in mystery reading is the opportunity to speculate about people and their motives—but by the time we reach the end, if all goes well, it will be revealed that at least one of our character readings is wrong.  And, interestingly, being proven wrong is a desirable rather than frustrating aspect of the experience. You don’t need to read too many reviews of mysteries before you see a pattern: many readers are committed to guessing whodunnit but still want to be surprised by the answer.

The reveal is a disruptive but jubilant mechanism. When the guilty party (or parties) of a traditional mystery becomes apparent, it prompts us to rethink our earlier assumptions. We are catapulted backwards through our reading again, as we correct our impressions in a satisfying way. This, the undoing, is part of our reward…now we see who that character really is and how it all fits together.  Success!

Let’s pause for a moment to consider how challenging this is for the writer. It’s a complicated business to craft a character who appears one way but is, secretly, another way. Authors must establish possibilities without drawing attention to them, write toward an ending that provides an inevitable conclusion without giving away what’s to come, and construct a character who could plausibly be responsible for heinous crimes without excessively signaling such capabilities. Delicate balances indeed!

While there are existing methods for writers to complicate our understanding of character and plot (strategies for misdirection, red herrings, and so forth), they are quite difficult to pull off successfully. In truth, there is no tidy formula guaranteed to work….just a creative mind and dedication to developing the intricacies of the story in a way that remains compelling to the reader.  It’s almost an impossible task.

Applause and gratitude to writers who manage to surprise us, book after book!

(originally posted 4/12/17)


What are the most successful examples of undoings you’ve encountered in your reading? Or what are the things you most struggle with writing such undoings?

 

25 thoughts on “Endings and Undoings

  1. I remember reading “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and being slightly disappointed. Another one where Christie really undoes her characters is THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD. For me the challenge is striking the balance between making someone a believable suspect while still keeping the options open.

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  2. I remember being suprised by The Sixth Sense & Gone Girl (though I know others who totally guessed those twists).

    The struggle for me is balancing enough clues and leaving breadcrumbs to play fair without disappointing or making it “too easy” for avid readers who are great at tackling mysteries.

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  3. What intriguing food for thought to kick off the new week, Cynthia! I wish you were *my* professor–how can we audit your classes? This whole undoing-idea provides a strong argument for a certain semi-pantser to hammer out an actual outline for the rest of her WIP. One which reveals the true culprit, anyway. Sometimes I am as surprised as the reader. (Well, okay, maybe not really, but…)

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    1. You’re so sweet, Lisa! And I am constantly learning from y’all. 🙂

      Also have been there with the not-knowing-while-writing! That’s stressful. Was very relieved and glad to learn that at least *someone* turned out to be responsible…ha.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My mother used to say, “Don’t listen to what people tell you. Talk is cheap. Watch what they do.” This is a good prescription for the mystery writer. Most of the things the villain does should be admirable or endearing – get the reader to like the character. But something should be off. Maybe the character gives us a glimpse of his true nature during a moment of stress. Perhaps she has a political or religious belief that doesn’t dovetail with her usual behavior. Or perhaps the character is normally pretty innocuous or stupid, but exhibits an unexpected flash of brilliance. I like these kinds of clue much better than physical clues (Why did the butler have a drop of blood on his shoe?) If the writer wants to be really nasty, more than one character will exhibit ambivalent behavior. The key is, at the end, the reader should say, “I should have figured that out!” so they don’t feel that the writer has cheated them.

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  5. Yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head, Cyn–that is absolutely the most difficult part of writing a mystery novel. How to you misdirect the reader while still playing fair? And then come up with a clever and fun twist at the end? Oy. If we could solve that problem we’d all be Agatha Christies. (As it is, I’m simply an Eggatha Christie, lol.)

    Few mysteries truly surprise me at the end (and yes, many of the ones who have were indeed penned by Ms. C). But I actually enjoy the setup, characterization, and subcultures featured in the books as much as the big “reveal,” which is why I prefer cozies and traditionals to fast-paced, plot-driven thrillers. Great post, Cynthia–thank you!

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  6. I don’t think I had considered it this way (at least since the first time you posted it), but you’re right. Makes the mysteries I love all the more impressive because of it.

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  7. Cynthia, you’re absolutely right! That balancing act is hard to do, but when it’s done right it makes me want to go back and read the book all over again to see what I missed or glossed over the first time. I was never so proud—and scared—as when I had a reader tell me they did that with one of my books because they were convinced I cheated. They were happily surprised all the clues were actually there, and I was happily surprised they hadn’t given me a crappy review before their further study! ha!

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    1. Right? There are also books when I stop reading to stare at a certain sentence for a while in admiration…and I try to figure out how the author made such a wonderful thing.

      Love that comment from a reader!

      Like

  8. Would love to take your class, as well, Cyn! In college, I took Middle Poetry, where we read Canterbury Tales and Beowulf, and Poetry and Drama, which featured Hamlet and Lysistrata and Edmund Spencer sonnets. I did enjoy these classes, but would gladly trade all of them for an Agatha Christie class with you as the prof and the Chicks as classmates!!

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  9. Oooooooo! I love this!!

    Some of my favorite undoings are The Husband’s Secret by Lianne Moriarty, The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware, and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. (Come to think of it, they all have similiarish titles!) I loved the twists that turned my assumptions on their heads!

    Like

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