At the Burbank Writers Coffeehouse this afternoon, Peter Clines was discussing the differences between suspense, mystery, and a twist ending.
I’ll touch on those in another blog someday, but wanted to relay a story to illustrate the importance of a payoff after pages and pages of mystery or suspense. Sometimes novels can be 120,000 words long. Carefully crafted words of character development and clues and red herrings, and more clues and a story arch, and finally the big reveal. THE PAYOFF. If you put your readers through that much reading, you’d better have a worthwhile payoff.
Many years ago, my ex and I traveled with our respective children from the northeastern corner of Massachusetts to Poughkeepsie, NY, on Thanksgiving Wednesday, in the snow. It was destined to be a long ride as it was, and we were prepared in the way readers are when they heave a giant mystery novel onto their lap and settle in for the night.
The ride though ended up being very long. Somewhere into it, not sure how far along, the traffic stopped. Utterly stopped. Had this been summer, or Los Angeles, we could have gotten out of the car and played Frisbee or at least rolled our windows down and relaxed. But it was cold, we were all tired, and after too long of sitting we got restless. Helicopters roared above, and ambulances and police cars whizzed past, but they were so far ahead we couldn’t see a thing. We passed the time as best we could, playing words games or singing. Finally, two hours later, the traffic moved.
What was it the holdup? The first thing I saw, an image I will never forget, was a half a cow. Split right down the middle, lying on its side, dead of course. I never saw the other half. The 18 Wheeler was turned around the wrong way and twisted like a broken elbow. “Wow, a half a cow! That was worth the wait!” I said, or words to that effect. We all agreed heartily. Because, who ever gets to see THAT?
How does this rule apply to writing mysteries or thrillers or any genre that contains a big reveal?
If you’re going to write a book, and tease your readers, and drag out the big reveal, and keep them on edge with so much intensity they give up television or dinner to get to the end, you DAMN WELL BETTER HAVE A HALF A COW, to show them. Or something equally as worthy to trade for their money and time invested in your story, and in you.
An example of a bad reveal: two hours of traffic in the car and you see a guy with a flat tire. Or in a book–well you’re writers, you can make the connection.
That’s all I’ve got for now but it deemed worth sharing. Blake Snyder has Save the Cat. I’ve got Half a Cow.
Don’t cheat your readers. Give them something BIG.
-Tracy L. Carbone
For more of Tracy’s insights on writing visit HERE, or check out and follow her on her Amazon page.