When I visit “book groups” where everyone (or almost!) has read the same book at around the same time, I find it helps to begin by asking people, “Did you think the author chose the right ending for this book?” In order to grapple with answering this question, readers think back to the beginning; weigh the crises along the way; then measure, often in very articulate ways, how well the ending has satisfied the expectations raised.
One of my favorite “how to write” guides is The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. Gardner talks about an ending that rings and resounds, where “we are moved by the increasing connectedness of things, ultimately a connectedness of values.” In writing and reading mysteries, that connectedness matters even more: Every clue has to be considered. Discarded ones need to be justified. There are in fact mysteries where actions that push the plot forward happen by accident (especially in so-called caper novels, where humor rises often), but the sleuth needs to make some sense of things. By the end of the book, connections are clear — or mostly.
Jane Yolen, who released a YA book recently called Snow in Summer, says this similarly in her writing guide Take Joy: “However one gets to the end, know this: It is the delivery of that DNA promise made in the first sentence.”
When you recall your favorite mysteries, do you also recall their endings? In books written for adults, sometimes those endings are very dark, even despairing. And there will be something in the start of the book that has given us the clue to such a possibility.
“Young adult” books are less likely to end with despair. I propose that we could actually graph dark endings against the planned age of the reader — we often want the youngest readers to feel comforted, and the oldest ones to be challenged. Thus, Allen Bradley’s Flavia De Luce mysteries, which work for middle graders (and also adults, but that’s another story), deliver some degree of comfort to Flavia in the long run — her sleuthing proves her courage or intelligence to someone who matters in her life. But in the political suspense of The Hunger Games, meant for older teens (and again adults), even the meticulously earned “safety” of Katniss’s ending is prickly with doubt and loss.
If you’re considering writing a YA mystery and want to explore how the younger edge of this “ending” thing works, I recommend The Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone. A classic wartime espionage plot is framed within the life of an 11-year-old whose parents seem to have abandoned her to other relatives, on the coast of Maine. Stone chooses Christmas as the season for the mystery’s denouement, and among the final items tucked into the resolution are cocoa, music, and goodness. And loss.
I think the author of a mystery for “non-adult” readers is likely to struggle with the right balance of hope and goodness, versus the frightening uncertainty that mysteries for adults often provide. “Young adulthood” includes as many risks as adulthood. But is there a covenant to provide an ending that proves the protagonist’s ability to move forward?
I think there is. I’d like to know what you think about all this.