Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

This is the End: Writing A Compelling Ending

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

 

Any successful thriller writer will tell you that your book’s got to have a slam bang opening.  But here Joseph Souza, author The Neighbor, a crackerjack novel I reviewed as “A taut, twisty psychological thriller,” tells us why a great ending is equally important.

 

 

Have you ever arrived at the end of your novel and realized it just didn’t work? Or that you had no idea how to end it? Or who did the crime and why they did it? If the answer to these questions is yes then don’t feel like you’re alone. All of us writers feel this way at one point or another.

 

Writing a compelling ending is hard work. It requires a lot of thought and contemplation. You have to be adaptable and willing to look at your story from different angles. How many times have we read a great novel, often one by a big name author, and been sorely disappointed by the ending? It’s almost as if they got tired of their story and just stopped. As writers, we definitely don’t want to leave our hard-earned readers on a sour note.

 

If writing endings were easy, everyone would be a writer. At times, I wish being a writer was like being a starting major league pitcher. You pitch the first eight innings of the game and then have a closer come in to finish the ninth for you. But alas, if you want to be an author, writing a satisfying ending is something we must learn to do.

 

Using another sports analogy; the best defense is often a good offense. And by this I mean that half the battle in composing a great ending is writing a great story. Making the reader care how your story ends means you’ve done a successful job holding their interest. Now you need to smoothly land this jet plane that is your plot and make sure your passengers get to their gates. You’ll need to provide an ending that will give closure and allow the reader to walk away satisfied.

 

The type of book you’re writing can often determine the type of ending you’re shooting for. A police procedural or cozy mystery requires that the ending be neatly wrapped up. Domestic thrillers, which I write, often have ambiguous endings, leaving the reader wondering what just happened. A great example of this is Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL. After all the horrendous things Nick’s wife has put him through during the course of the novel, Nick realizes at the end that he can’t just up and leave her. Amy’s gotten herself pregnant, and Nick is terrified that his child will be raised by this evil woman.

 

Many readers were angry that Flynn ended her novel this way. Others loved this ambiguous ending. It left the reader contemplating about will happen next in their relationship. It’s the same reaction many viewers had when watching the last episode of The Sopranos. Tony and his family are sitting in the booth of a diner. Mysterious people walk in and out. There’s something tense and scary about this scene. We wonder what’s going to happen. Will Tony and his family get killed? Then the screen goes black and that’s the end of the show. Some people loved this ending while others despised it and felt they’d been cheated for all the time and effort they put in watching the series.

 

The show, Breaking Bad, on the other hand, has a well defined plot arc that resembles a rainbow; at the end is a pot of gold. The writers wrapped up the show and left no question about Walt’s fate. Each show ended differently, for entirely different reasons, and each ended in interesting fashion. The ending fit the story line.

 

Not to get metaphysical, but what actually is an ending? If you ask yourself this question, I believe it will make writing your endings that much easier. Or at least less harder. Because, when one thinks about it, an ending is merely the beginning of something else. Consider what will happen to your surviving characters after your book ends. If it’s a series, the conclusion will impact how your characters act and think in the next book.

 

The most important aspect of your ending is this: how will the main characters change or be changed by the events that happened in your plot. Sometimes a violent, action-packed ending is not what’s needed. Sometimes, it’s how your character has changed that leaves the reader emotionally impacted. As in GONE GIRL, Nick is left reeling because he will have to live with his evil wife for the foreseeable future. This type of profound ending hits like a sledgehammer and keeps the reader thinking about your story long after it’s finished.

 

Lay the groundwork for your ending by writing a killer plot. A strong storyline will do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to crafting the conclusion. Spend time thinking about how to close out your novel even while you’re writing it. Sometimes it helps to write out a few different scenarios before you find the one that fits best. Often, it will take a few rewrites to get it just right. Then, if you’re like me, you’ll listen to your agent and editor, both of whom will give you additional input as to bring your storyline together.

 

Don’t get discouraged. Endings are tough. Persevere and work your way through them. And with that, I wish you the best writing that killer ending.

 

Joseph Souza is an award winning and bestselling author. His latest novel, THE NEIGHBOR, was published by Kensington. His next novel, PRAY FOR THE GIRL, will be published May, 2019.

 

 

And please don’t forget to look for my latest McCabe/Savage thriller, A Fatal Obsession, coming out on August 21st and available for preorder now!

 

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook for more details! 

 

The Tragic Deaths of Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain and Richard Cory

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

This past week marked the tragic suicides of fashion superstar Kate Spade and the celebrity chef and TV star Anthony Bourdain.  Reading about the self-inflicted deaths of these two people who one would have thought had achieved all that they had ever dreamed of, I was reminded of the poem I last read in high school, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Richard Cory.  The poem reminds us in stark fashion how wealth, success or personal charm can never protect the soul from inexplicable depression.

 

As someone who writes about murder for the pleasure of readers the reality it reminds us of seems particularly apt.  For those who’ve never read Richard Cory or don’t remember it, here it is.  As they say, read it and weep.

 

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich — yes, richer than a king —

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Favorite Memories of Madison Avenue: My Night at the Berlin Wall

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

It was the creative shoot-out of the year in the advertising business.  Four of the largest and most prestigious agencies in the business…Ogilvy & Mather, BBDO, NW Ayer and Young & Rubicam, the agency where I was working as a senior creative director, were all vying to win the U.S. Army’s recruiting account which at that time, the Fall of 1986, was billing over $125,000,000 a year.

 

Our CEO, a former All-American football player who was used to winning, called me into his office and told me he wanted me to lead the creative effort. He also made it clear to me in no uncertain terms that he wanted to win this one.  In fact, he wanted it so badly he was willing to spend upwards of a quarter of a million dollars of Y&R money to create and shoot a full up sixty second commercial that would be so emotionally powerful it would leave the panel of generals who would be making the decision literally in tears.

 

I went back to my office and called the three art director/copywriter teams who would be working for me on the pitch together for a meeting and explained the assignment.  They were all smart, experienced and creative and in just a few days the three teams got back to me with a batch of ideas.  I went through them. Suggested a few changes here and there.  And then selected the ideas I thought best.  When the changes had been made I arranged a meeting to present them to the CEO and other agency big-wigs.  There were a lot of good ideas but a decision was made.

 

The spot we were going to shoot showed a young US soldier on patrol at night at the symbolic dividing line between democracy and tyranny:  the Berlin wall.  The obvious solution was to send our creative and production teams to Berlin and shoot there.

 

Sadly, there was one problem with that particular “obvious” solution.  The US Army’s rules for the pitch stated in no uncertain terms that no one from any of the competing agencies could have any direct contact with any active duty U.S. military personnel.  There would be no way to avoid such contact at the Wall in Berlin.  The second, less obvious solution, was to find a close replica of the wall closer to home.  Our producer and production company dispatched location scouts all over the New York tri-state area.   They found a number of walls that didn’t make the cut.  And one that did.

 

It was an almost exact replica of the real thing surrounding a moving company warehouse just outside of Newark in Harrison, New Jersey. All it lacked was barbed wire strung along the top and the endless graffiti that the real wall had. We sent out team a team of set designers who strung the barbed wire and spray-painted replicas of the real graffiti.  They also created an almost exact copy of Checkpoint Charlie, the best-known passage between the US sector and the Russian sector of the divided city.

 

When everything was ready our creative and production teams along with the young actor we’d cast in the role of an American MP headed out to the wall.  It was a rainy Friday night when we set up and started shooting.  The actor was shown patrolling a sector of the wall and finally arriving at the checkpoint which was manned by extras wearing East German military uniforms and toting (fake) automatic weapons.

 

The shoot all went perfectly.  The only hitch was that our wall and our Checkpoint Charlie happened to be located directly across the street from the Harrison stop on the PATH (Port Authority Trans Hudson) railroad station.  There weren’t many passengers getting off at midnight on a rainy Friday.  But every time a train pulled in a few who’d obviously spent their Fridays drinking too much in Manhattan bars  staggered onto the platform only to be confronted with our machine gun toting East German soldiers and a large sign telling them that they were now “leaving the American sector.”  It was a thing of nightmares and from their shocked, unbelieving expressions I have no doubt that many of these poor souls decided it was well past time to give up the booze.

 

In any event we wrapped the set around three in the morning and headed for home.  We selected our takes and edited the commercial over the next few days and within a week or so I was presenting it (along with the rest of the Y&R team’s voluminous pitch proposal) to the assembled brass at an army conference center south of Washington.

 

The post-script is that we got the account and I spent the next three years as Creative Director on the Army account creating many more pool-outs of the Army’s highly successful “Be All You Can Be” recruiting campaign.

 

 

And please don’t forget to look for my latest McCabe/Savage thriller, A Fatal Obsession, coming out on August 21st and available for preorder now!

 

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook for more details! 

 

In Praise of a Perceptive Editor

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

James Hayman:  At the moment, I’m in the middle of making final revisions to my third McCabe/Savage thriller. Titled Darkness First the book is due out in the UK in June 2013 and, hopefully, around the same time in the US.

Darkness First is the first of my books to require any kind of extensive editorial rewriting.  Number two, The Chill of Night, sailed through with only minor tinkering and the first, The Cutting, required only one fairly simple, though important change to attain its final form.

Darkness First was the most difficult of the three books to write, in many ways the most ambitious and, in my view, also the most interesting.  It’s also the first of the three that helped me truly appreciate how valuable a perceptive and talented editor can be, in this case Stefanie Bierwerth who works with Penguin UK in London, can be.

The plot itself is fairly simple.  A large haul of oxycontin is smuggled by boat from Saint John, New Brunswick into Eastport, Maine. A distribution network is set up. The drugs are sold. Money is made.  Eventually, there is a falling out between the two people responsible for the crime. One is a vicious killer named Conor Riordan and the other a beautiful young woman from Eastport named Tiffany Stoddard. On a dark and steamy (no, not stormy) night in Machias State Park, Conor Riordan brutally stabs Tiff Stoddard to death.  The police quickly discover Riordan is the culprit. The only problem is Conor Riordan doesn’t exist.

At the suggestion of her father, Washington County Sheriff John Savage, Detective Maggie Savage of the Portland Police Department comes home to Washington County and volunteers to join the state police investigation into the crime. Eventually, with the help of her Portland partner, Mike McCabe, Maggie discovers the true killer and solves the crime.

However, in my view, what makes the book work is not just the story line (which I think is pretty good), but also the exploration of Maggie’s feelings for the other major characters and the conflicted feelings/relationships she has with them.  She  finds herself trying to mediate a nasty feud between two men she has loved all her life, her seventy four year old father, who she learns may be dying of cancer, and her  wild and irresponsible younger brother Harlan, who has recently returned from service in Iraq and is recovering from a serious wound and suffering from PTSD.

Maggie’s also trying to sort out her screwed-up love life and needs to resolve the strong attraction she feels to both her Portland partner Mike McCabe and a charming and handsome state police detective named Sean Carroll.

In the end unraveling and resolving these feelings and relationships added a lot to the story.  It also made the book more challenging to write and, in my view, ultimately much more interesting. Stef Bierwerth at Penguin understood this and her perceptive insights and suggestions were a huge help in getting it right. Thanks in part to her, I think it may be the strongest of  the three McCabe/Savage books so far.  I hope my readers agree.

A Glorious 4th on the 5th

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

James Hayman: Although there are a lot of great neighborhoods in the city of Portland, anyone who reads my books must know that Munjoy Hill has long been my favorite. My hero Mike McCabe, his girlfriend Kyra and his daughter Casey share a three-bedroom condo on the Eastern Prom “looking out at Casco Bay and the islands. That view, and the fact that it was less than a mile walk to police headquarters were the primary reasons he’d paid more than he could afford for the…condo when he signed on, three years earlier, as chief of the PPD’s Crimes Against People unit.” (From The Cutting.)

In an early scene from The Chill of Night I describe McCabe as he “turned left on Congress and headed west down Munjoy Hill. In spite of a decade of gentrification The Hill still retained the look and feel of its working class roots. Smallish wood-frame houses built sometime around 1900. Most divided into apartments. Tonight (an especially frigid winter night) they were all closed up tight, curtains drawn. He continued down the hill, passing a few couples heading for one or another of the bars and restaurants that were sprouting like weeds. The Front Room. The Blue Spoon. Bar Lola.”

Detective Maggie Savage, McCabe’s partner in crime-fighting has her own place on The Hill, a three-flight walkup on Vesper Street, a couple of blocks in from McCabe’s apartment on the Prom.

This summer my wife Jeanne and I decided for the second summer in a row to rent our house on Peaks Island to summer visitors and move into town.  We’re living on the third-floor of one of those hundred-year-old wood frame houses on The Hill (more or less halfway between McCabe’s and Maggie’s) where we enjoy an excellent view of the water.  Not quite as good as McCabe’s but still pretty nice.

Portland fireworks display goes off almost flawlessly (Press-Herald)

Portland fireworks display goes off almost flawlessly (Press-Herald)

Perhaps the best part is that we’re only one house in from the Prom and less than a one-minute walk from Fort Allen Park, Portland’s most beautiful public space and, without question, the jewel in Munjoy Hill’s crown.

Set on a sixty-eight acre grassy hill, Fort Allen Park slopes down from the Prom and offers, in addition to its tennis courts, sandy beach and picnic tables, endlessly breath-taking views of Casco Bay and the islands beyond.

Every Fourth of July what seems like most of the population of Portland crowds into the park to watch the annual fireworks display set off from a barge anchored just off-shore.  This year, however, just as the Portland Symphony was winding up its concert of patriotic music and minutes before the fireworks were set to begin,  a lightning storm lit up the eastern skies in a heavenly display that dwarfed anything the city could hope to put on. Torrential rain, high wind and dangerously close lightning strikes forced officials to cancel the show and reschedule it for the following night. The crowd trudged home, soaked I assume, to the skin.  I thought, given the disappointing evening, most wouldn’t return.

Turned out I was wrong.  By the evening of the fifth the skies had cleared and most of the people came back. Not quite as many as the night before but still an estimated thirty thousand of them.  The Portland Symphony replayed its entire program concluding with the signature 1812 Overture which was followed one of the best fireworks displays I can remember seeing anywhere.

According to the Portland Press Herald, “PSO conductor Robert Moody summed up the mood of the crowd before the signature overture (began). ‘ “I don’t think there’s any place better in the country to celebrate Independence Day than on the Eastern Prom with the Portland Symphony Orchestra,’ he said, to cheers.” I agree.





“Hey, it’s fiction. Who cares if it’s accurate?”

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

The summer before last I attended an International Thriller Writers get together at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan.  One of the better-attended sessions over the three days of the conference was an interview and discussion with Harlan Coben, whose books regularly hit the best seller lists and one of which, Tell No One, was made into a successful French movie starring a British actress, Kristin Scott Thomas (who speaks pretty good French) complete with subtitles.  (Yes, I know Coben’s books usually take place in New Jersey. This movie was definitely French.)

Anyway, I digress. At the conference, one member of the audience asked Coben how much research he does when writing his books.

“None,” replied Coben.

“Then how do you know if what you are writing is accurate?”

“I don’t,” Coben said. “My books are fiction. I don’t pretend that they’re anything else. I don’t really care if they’re accurate or not. All I care about is whether people enjoy reading them.”

I remember the exchange so clearly because at the time I found it troubling.

Unlike Coben,  I spend a fair amount of time and go to some lengths to assure the technical accuracy of what I write about.

My first novel The Cutting is typical.  The Cutting is a story about illegal heart transplants.  Before I wrote a single word for the book about transplant procedures, I read at least a dozen articles and watched a number of videos that describe and show the operation in detail. I talked to three cardiac surgeons about how one goes about removing a heart from one human body and then implanting it in another. I researched the instruments and tools required for the job, learning among other things how heart-lung machines work and the brand name of the saw most typically used  to cut through the sternum and open the rib cage to get at the heart (Stryker, in case anyone is interested).

I also spent several hours with the transplant co-ordinator at Maine Medical Center discussing where hearts come from, who co-ordinates the process and who would be eligible or ineligible for such a procedure. Before publication, I sent my (almost) final manuscript to an old friend and college classmate who was and is a transplant surgeon at the Iowa Heart Center in Des Moines for a final fact check. He said I got almost everything right but suggested a few small changes, which I made.

All in all, at least a hundred hours and maybe more went into this research.

Was it really necessary for a reader’s enjoyment of the story?  Probably not.  Could the time have been better spent writing and polishing the manuscript? Possibly. Undoubtedly, most of my readers probably wouldn’t have known the difference if I’d fudged it. And for those few who happen to be cardiac surgeons and would recognize an inaccuracy, I can always adopt Coben’s retort. “Hey, it’s fiction. Who cares if it’s accurate?”

Harlan Coben has published a dozen or more successful books. I’ve published two, neither even remotely successful as most of his.  Coben’s been number one on the New York Times best-seller list.  I haven’t gotten anywhere close to that lofty status.

Still, as I close in on the finish of my third novel, Darkness First, I find myself spending more time than I probably should researching exactly how much of what drug a murderer should put in his tranquilizer dart to make sure the victim’s vicious rottweiler goes to sleep and stays asleep until the murderous deed is done.

Maybe Coben’s right.  Maybe this kind of obsessiveness about accuracy isn’t necessary.  Somehow I just like it better that way.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

One of my favorite films from the 60’s is Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner starring a very young Tom Courtenay.  The film is based on a short story by Alan Sillitoe who also wrote the screenplay.  It tells the story of a rebellious young man from England who is arrested for robbing a bakery and is sent to a boys reformatory or a borstal as the Brits call it. While there he discovers that he has a gift for long-distance running and much of the film is about how his lonely reveries while running mile after mile, ultimately shape and change his life.

In my view the film provides an excellent metaphor for the craft of writing.


Writing is a solitary, if not anti-social pursuit.  It’s something you must do alone. If the piece you’re writing happens to be a three or four hundred page novel you have to plan on being alone for incredibly long stretches of time.  If you crave or need constant or even frequent attention and interaction with other people, the best advice anyone can give you about writing a novel is don’t.

The single line I remember most clearly from Annie Dillard’s excellent memoir The Writing Life, (which I read several years ago) is her response to a reader’s question about what makes the ideal writing space.

Dillard, at the time, lived in a beautiful house overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Washington and this reader no doubt was expecting Dillard to describe a cozy, book-filled study with endless views of endless waves lapping against the magnificent coastline. Instead she said that the ideal writing room, at least for her, was a cinderblock cell devoid of books, telephone, television and even windows through which she could catch a glimpse of the outside world.

Like Dillard, I’m lucky enough to live in a beautiful house overlooking the ocean in Maine.  My designated writing room is a small, admittedly book-lined room on the second floor of my house and it boasts one of the prettiest views anyone could ever imagine of Casco Bay and the islands stretching out in the distance.  When I write I close the shades and shut it all out. I also turn off the telephone and disconnect myself from the Internet.

Even writers who prefer writing in crowded places, coffee shops for example, or libraries (where I often write) or while riding on trains or planes, essentially have to be alone inside their own minds and imaginations while they craft their pieces. Their only company are the characters who people their stories (whom I sometimes describe as my imaginary friends). The only interesting conversations they get to engage in are the dialogue exchanges they put in their characters’ mouths. The only beautiful views, or views of any sort, they can enjoy are the ones gazed on by the characters in their tales.

All of this makes me, if not other writers, something of a curmudgeon.  When my wife gently knocks on my door, usually to ask me a civil and often necessary question, my typical response is a low dangerous growl. Cujo in spectacles.

I am currently on deadline to finish my third novel and so I spend all my working time by myself. I’ll be happy when the book is finally finished.  So, I daresay, will my wife and any friends I still have left, those who I haven’t totally driven away.