Remember that description of the two kinds of mystery writers — pantsers and plotters? Plotters plot. In detail. With outlines. Chapter summaries. Scenes listed. Sometimes they use software to help keep track of twists, red herrings, and changes in characters (not to mention physical descriptions and maps).
Pantsers write “by the seat of the pants.” They start with a character, a situation — then are almost as determined to be surprised by their next chapter, as the reader is when reading it.
But of course, many writers end up halfway in between. And the reason is, it’s easy to start and even to reach the middle of writing a mystery and think you know where it’s going. Then the characters get a bit wiggly, and the scene turns out more complicated. Suddenly “the characters are talking back,” as many an author discovers — and moving to a different path than expected.
Nevertheless, the writer’s task is to draw the threads together, cast aside the red herrings, and show how each scene has been essential to the conclusion of the book. Writing for young adults is no exception. But it carries one added responsibility: Words, scenes, results, may lodge in a teen reader’s mind for a long time. There can be an echo effect into a loss already experienced, or an uncertainty that weighs heavily. The YA mystery — unlike the one written for a more experienced reader — can even be taken literally. So the author’s choices matter more than ever. (I’ve gone into this already in “The Covenant of the Ending,” an earlier post.)
Let’s say the book (first draft) is three-quarters written. (I find that’s the point when my heart seizes and says “Omigosh, what have I done and how do I get out of this?”) What useful questions move the author toward a really good ending?
1. Why did you want to write this book in the first place? Was it the intricacy of the plot (say, a puzzle mystery)? The depths of the character (and how she/he changes)? The parallel to something happening in the political world that scares you almost worse than a murder, so you want to shout about it?
2. The Center for Media Literacy recommends that media literacy training should address five basic questions: (a) Who created this message? (b) What creative techniques are used to attract attention? (c) How might different people understand this message differently? (d) What values, lifestyles, and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message? (e) Why is this message being sent? Ask yourself these — but also picture your reader struggling with them. How do you want the young adult reader to see the answers? Your ending is built from your own answers.
3. What emotion — brief or enduring — do you want your ending to evoke? Lauren Myracle’s SHINE is narrated by a young adult investigator of a friend’s death, and despite some upbeat and even funny moments, as the ending approaches, the narrator knows how her presumed perpetrator is probably feeling: “His features contorted, and I felt unbearably sad.” As the final threads are laid into place, she strikes this note again: “I nodded. My tears ran down my face, a waterfall of sorrow.” Note how different this is from Flavia De Luce’s relief and triumph in an Allan Bradley mystery (underlain by her confusion about some threads still unresolved), or the bright, even perky, resolution of a classic Nancy Drew mystery. Which framework is your style?
4. A young-adult writer (that is, a writer who IS a young adult) with whom I swap notes about our craft asked how to find the place where the book is heading. Hint: It has to meet the expectations raised at the beginning, or the ending won’t be satisfying. Print out those first few pages again and look, with hindsight, at what you proposed. Does it still fit? You have two choices: Mesh the ending with the way you began, or, gulp, go with the ending you’ve later developed and commit yourself to reframing your starting point during revision.
5. And finally, here’s a note from that same young author: “We’ve got time. I’m rewriting the book, taking out parts I never felt sure of, and changing some stuff in a huge way. It’s an exciting time. It’s thrilling to reread this book and know I wrote it and to still feel that primal tightening in my gut that means I’m onto something important.” As your writing process approaches framing the ending, go ahead — be thrilled; know you’re onto something important. Be bold, and aim for the kind of ending that gives you a “primal tightening” in your gut (or heart). You can do this!
Next post: The best words that come before “The End.” And why.