Sparkles In My Brain

From time to time, I play around with short stories – usually as a palette cleanser in between revisions or just before I’m about to start a new book. I’m here to tell you, writing mystery short stories is hard.

The short stories I like best are when the writer withholds the twist to the very end and then the delivers it without explicitly solving the mystery. It’s the reader who solves the story after reading the last sentence. I noticed this technique for the first time in the story The Remaining Unknowns by Tony Broadbent published in the MWA The Mystery Box anthology. Most recently, I saw that technique again used by Martin Edwards in his story, Consuming Passion, published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in July of 2016.

I don’t want to spoil the endings of these stories for you, but rest assured, these gentlemen are master writers. Within in seconds of reading the last sentence of each story, I “got it” and that little synapse arcing across my brain lit it up like the Fourth of July.

Writing an ending like that is so much harder than it looks; I’ve tried with mixed results. It’s hard to come up with a dramatic twist, save it to the end, give the reader enough clues for fair play and to let them connect the dots, all without sucking the tension out of the story.  Am open to suggestions.

Meanwhile, Mysteristas, what kind of endings do you like best?

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17 thoughts on “Sparkles In My Brain”

  1. You know I am going to have to read the July EQ now. I have it on my Kindle languishing for that indefinite time when I have time…I like endings where I can participate in the discovery. As a writer, I know the twist is coming, I’m excited to get to it and see if it accords with the twist I had thought up all along. What I dislike (and it’s only happened once) is a mystery with no ending. That book hit the wall, and although I understand the writer never tried that again, it was the first in the series and I haven’t been able to read any of the rest of the books despite the likable characters the writer created.

  2. I don’t explicitly need to know the culprit – and I’m open to, “did he do it? or maybe her?” But I do like a sense of finality. And as you say, enough clues that I can reasonably puzzle out a possible villain on my own.

  3. I know it isn’t what you asked, but just yesterday I was reminded of an ending I liked least. It was a cliffhanger designed to sell the next story in the series. As much as I enjoyed that particular book I felt manipulated and didn’t buy another one.

  4. Kait: I concur. There was one particular very successful book that would have hit the wall were I not listening to it on audio. It felt like the writer just ran out of ideas.
    Mary Sutton: The first Tana French book, In The Woods, was like that. She solved the main mystery and gave you very strong hints about the solution of the backstory mystery but never came out and said it. I kind of liked that.
    Peg: I don’t mind a subplot or parallel plot that is left hanging but the main story has to be solved.

  5. Mystery short stories are truly hard! And endings are hardest of all. Personally, I like open-ended stories, where I get to decide, based on my interpretation of the story. Those don’t work so well for mysteries. *sigh*

  6. Like Francelia, I like those twists that are obvious, once they’re pointed out. Sure wish I could write them! I have it on my list to study those mystery shorts. Learn from the masters.

  7. Francelia: What an art form! And when we’re writing them it’s so hard to craft the surprise when we know what’s coming.
    Sue Star: I think the readers will tolerate open endings only if you give them some sense of justice at some level.
    Becky Clark: Those short story writers truly are masters. They make every sentence count. The only rule I’ve maintained so far is that each sentence must advance the plot and develop a character. Then playing fair and saving the twist until the end is so hard to do.

  8. Interesting you say that, Keenan! I don’t know the ending of my short stories when I’m writing them. Often, I am surprised by the plot twists and endings I come up with. I don’t remember who said it, but I believe in the axiom, “Surprise to the writer, surprise to the reader.” It works for me, *almost* all of the time. 🙂

  9. Ooh, good question, Keenan! I guess my favorite types of endings are ones that are mostly resolved, with maybe a couple unanswered questions a la In the Woods, but with an added twist at the very end that leaves you with a deeper feeling of resolution and also thinking, “holy cow, that was awesome!” Those are super hard to pull off, and I really like what Francelia said: “Surprise to the writer, surprise to the reader” 🙂

  10. I like short stories because, well, they are short. Sometimes I want a quick read while I am WAITING for endless appointments, lessons, transportation of whomever to wherever. I subscribe to a mystery magazine (Hitchcock) just for those opportunities.

    I like books that have some sense of “question” or “what do you think” at the end. As a reader, I have tried to seek out all the clues and pieces of the puzzle all the way through, so I like if there is a little detail about the future left for me to find out on my own. There has to be some sort of an end, however. Something that lets me know that the book is finished. Twists are very nice.

    I hate books that have deliberate cliff-hanger endings without wrapping up any storylines. I understand the need for a “hook” for the next in a series, but if I have spent my time reading a “current” book, I want some sort of ending NOW. It doesn’t have to be the “all lived happily every after and all bad guys went to jail” kind of ending, but just SOMETHING. I do enjoy books that leave something dangling for the next book as long as it is well done. Linwood Barclay does this very well in his Promise Falls series. I just finished FAR FROM TRUE, and while I will admit that at the end of the book I yelled out loud “NO,” I did not feel cheated that not everything was tied up in a neat little package for me. Of course the next book will be on my list as soon as it is out in November.

  11. What a great topic and question! I do like a sense of closure in mysteries…it’s okay if a few subplot threads are dangling that will clearly be picked up in the next book (if it’s a series) but I do want the A-ha! of the main mystery for sure. If it’s not a mystery, I’m okay with open-endedness, if it’s done well. By which I mean, there is enough there to imply what the ending might be. I don’t like it when it seems like everything just STOPS at what seems like a random point…

  12. Not a short story, but the ending thing…. one of my favorite endings EVER is from PARANOIA by Joseph Finder. I read it a long time ago, but can tell you it could have gone either way, and in the end, it could have gone either way.

  13. I love twist endings, especially when I know a twist is coming, but I haven’t been able to guess what it is. I like closure, but I don’t have to have every little story question wrapped up with a neat little bow. In fact, I hate “happily ever after” endings because they’re so unrealistic. I think writing a satisfying ending (especially with a twist) is a massive challenge.

    Good topic!

  14. Thanks Peg, I have read several of Joseph Finder’s books, but not PARANOIA. I have added it to my must-read-this-summer list.

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