Friday, November 12, 2010


by Earl Staggs

There’s nothing I like more than an ending that comes as a surprise, one that makes me give myself a didn’t-see-that-coming slap in the head. What I don’t like, though, is a gimmicky trick ending that makes me think, “You gotta be kidding.” I’ve seen that kind of ending, I’m sorry to say, in one book and on two of my favorite TV mystery shows recently. I suspect the writer, producer or star of the show came up with the idea at the last minute.

“Hey, guys, wouldn’t it be a real shocker at the end if we did such and such?”

Well, it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it ruined the show for me.

Without naming the specific shows or giving the specific plots, here’s a paraphrasical example:

The hero and heroine assure the distraught widow they’ll find the person who shot her beloved husband. They follow the clues with dogged determination and eliminate suspects one by one. Along the way, they find the gun. The weapon has been wiped, but their clever CSI-type person finds a thumb print on the shell casing and identifies the shooter as the victim’s former business partner. When they present the evidence, the guy admits he did the shooting. Pretty good stuff, huh?

But wait!

After the last commercial, while the hero and heroine are congratulating each other and adding that cute and obligatory sexual tension bit between them, the clever CSI-type rushes in to announce (here comes the gimmicky trick part) that the gunshot was post mortem. The victim was already dead when the former business partner shot him. The actual cause of death was poisoning. The lab person’s technospectrogizmo found arsenic in his system.

With only a minute to go before, “Stay tuned for scenes from our next episode,” the widow is arrested and charged with murder.

Here’s another one. The detectives are sure the beautiful trophy wife killed her husband, but she has an ironclad alibi. A bank surveillance tape shows her making a deposit at the time of the murder. How can she be in two places at once? Easy. At the last minute, they discover she has an identical twin who was in on it.

Some people, especially the person who came up with these ideas, may think, “Wow! What a great twist!”

Me, I think it was a cheap trick. I love a good whodunit mystery in which the good guys follow clues and with deductive reasoning and shoe leather come up with the solution. I don’t like it when they pull a gimmick out of the hat at the last minute and pass it off as a clever blow-me-away twist ending.

But that’s just me. Or is it? Anyone else feel the same?


Jean Henry Mead said...

I'm with you, Earl. I also hate it when the least likely character is the killer, with few or no prior clues to his identity. It's as if the writer lined up all his characters in a row and said, "Eeenie, Meenie, Minie, Mo, you're it." That's not fair to the reader.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Lately, I've been watching the original Hawaii Five-0 on retro TV and it's amazing how everything wraps up in the last couple of minutes. There's never a good explanation for this -- it just happens.

True masters of mystery leave clues along the way, but they are so minute that few readers catch them. Endings should not only surprise the reader, they should also be believable.

Bill Kirton said...

Yep, I agree too, Earl. And even if there's no tricksy ending, you sometimes get the feel with mysteries that the writer was maybe getting fed up with it all and felt the need to tie up all the loose ends and get it over with. After a longish, perhaps even complex read, this box-ticking is highly unsatisfactory.

Earl Staggs said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels cheated with gimmicky endings pulled out of a hat. I think writers are getting away with too much character and not enough story. They devote all their energy to making the protag interesting/cute/sexy/whatever, and not enough to writing a good story. I like interesting/cute/sexy characters as much as anyone, but I want an equal amount of good story.