Plot Conundrum

I love mysteries, both writing and reading them.  I have a host of favorite authors including Elizabeth Peters, Dana Stabenow, Cornelia Read, Carol O’Connell, Sandi Ault, Karen Slaughter, Meg Gardner, etc.  But lately something’s been bothering me and I’m not sure how to handle it from both perspectives of reader and writer.  It’s that climatic moment near the end of the book where there’s a big dramatic event, usually endangering the life of the protagonist, and resulting in discovering and/or catching the antagonist.  This event is then followed by a slower paced conclusion that ties everything together.  Here’s my problem.  I’m getting bored with that climatic event.  Especially in series.  How scared should I get for the protagonist when I know a new book is coming out in a few months?  It’s obvious the character is going to survive, which kills the suspense for me.

Some authors deal with this in unique ways.  Elizabeth George was brave enough to kill off one of her main characters.  Others have the protagonist not survive to live happily ever after, and that character will lose someone or suffer something they then have to deal with in the next book.  Meg Gardner for instance has a main character in a wheel chair, which automatically makes me tense because he’s more vulnerable than your typical hero.  But the ending scene is still beginning to feel like a plot device.  I find I am reading these books because of the strongly written characters, who have become people I care about and want to spend time with rather than because of the plot.

It still begs the question.  How do you keep that climatic scene from eliciting a ho-hum response from the reader?  How do you avoid writing a formula and yet still stay in a genre you love?  I’m not sure that avoiding the whole ending scene would work, either, because then the plot would seem to fade away and I think as a reader I would feel let down even though I’m finding that ending scene to be the least interesting part of a book.  Maybe the solution is to not tie yourself as a writer into a series.  That would then free you up to do whatever you wanted with your characters and the reader won’t assume what the ending is going to be. 

So any thoughts on how to solve this or comments on what you do in your writing to avoid having what should be the most tense, fast paced scene of a book become an expected, boring formula?

4 thoughts on “Plot Conundrum

  1. I’ve actually got a double response to that dilemma. As a reader, I’m not particularly concerned that I know the protagonist will triumph at the end. In fact, I’d really rather that be the case. It’s probably why I don’t read horror, because I know the chances of the world being put back into order at the end are slim to none 🙂 What interests me is the clever twists along the way that challenge the protagonist. I dread the part midway through the book where I can predict what’s going to happen step by step. I want to be surprised with a twist or two I didn’t anticipate. The other thing I want is to feel the characters emotion — have their fear and worry become my fear and worry. If the author doesn’t hook me into the character’s emotion I’ll put the book down and not come back to it, regardless of the ending.

    So, the short answer is: it’s the journey, not the destination. Maybe the authors you’re reading aren’t making the journey interesting enough. Just a thought.


  2. Oh, the journeys are interesting, and there are plenty of twists, it’s just when you get to the point where the protagonist is hanging by her fingernails from the cliff and the antagonist is pulling them out one by one, I’m feeling the urge to skip ahead to find the answers to all the twists since I know she’s going to somehow survive. Basically what’s bothering me is just those few paragraphs or pages that are supposed to be the high point of tension. And I know what you mean, I hate having the plot become very obvious midway. Good thoughts Susan!


  3. I agree with Susan, but as for those few climactic pages… what I’ve found effective with other writers is the “all bets are off” approach. Sometimes they accomplish this with the death of a secondary (but still important and loved) character; think of Hedwig’s death in the last Harry Potter. What’s interesting about her death was that it wasn’t a big, drawn-out thing. It was “Bang, she’s dead.”

    If an integral character can die so… off-hand, it makes me very nervous for the rest of the cast.

    But if death’s not your thing, think about the characters themselves. At the climax, they’ve probably been brought to the point of no return. If you can show that point in their development, it can be very powerful. After all, even if we “know” they’ll survive, we don’t know what kind of person the experience will make them…


  4. Arvik, I think you’ve nailed it, in that there has to be some sort of change to that dramatic point in the plot. Or, like Susan says, the sequel must be appropriate to the scene. As I think about it I realize it’s not the cliffhanger moment so much as the followup. Where the characters all gather around the table, chat to tie up loose ends, and then go on their happy way. When we know in real life, there’d be a lot more emotional garbage to tote around then before. By the way, I love your blogs and your way with words. Always thought provoking.


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