Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Justice is Served

Readers of mysteries, like those of romance novels, expect a certain type of ending. Romance readers expect the hero and heroine to be together in the end, living "happily ever after." In mysteries, readers expect justice to be served. The killer meets a fitting end, be it death itself, arrest and conviction, or some other suitable punishment for taking a human life. In that way, readers experience closure and its accompanying sense of satisfaction.

Closure is a psychological term. In the European Review of Social Psychology, cognitive closure was defined as "a desire for definite knowledge on some issue and the eschewal of confusion and ambiguity." So, people have an innate desire for a firm solution as opposed to enduring ambiguity. People's need for closure varies. Those with a high need for closure prefer order, clear rules, and predictability.

I know that I personally have a strong need for closure, and I suspect the same is true of most mystery readers. This need is what drives us to solve the puzzle of "whodunnit" along with the sleuth. We're struggling to close the gaps in our understanding of the situation by looking for clues, interpreting the behavior of suspects, etc.

Sometimes that driving need for closure can cause us to reach a conclusion too early that is erroneous, as described in this article in Psychology Today. And there are plenty of mystery authors that use that to their advantage in devising plots. They plant "twists in the tale" in their stories to drive readers into make one or more false conclusions before finally revealing some new information that leads to the real killer or the real explanation of what's going on.

But knowing "whodunnit" isn't enough for those of us who love reading mysteries. The murderer also has to be punished for their misdeed(s) so justice is served. That is true closure. We understand what happened and the characters receive their rewards and punishments as they deserve them. As I said before, sometimes a punishment is delivered within the legal system, and sometimes it occurs outside the legal system, but it's always fitting. And most mystery authors I know spend a lot of time devising an ending that is fitting and satisfying for their readers.

In my recent release, Deadly Currents, my protagonist, whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner, is faced with a decision near the end. She has discovered who the killer is and has a choice on how justice should be served. She makes that choice based on her character--her upbringing, ethics, beliefs, and training. Her choice brought a satisfying closure to me, and I hope it does for my readers, too.

What about you? Do you have a strong need for closure, to not only understand what happened and who the killer was, but also to see that justice is served? Have you ever been disappointed in the ending of a mystery that didn't provide that satisfying closure to you?


Vicki Doudera said...

Interesting post, Beth.

Readers do bring expectations to certain genres and it is our job to deliver. I can't imagine writing a mystery without satisfying closure. The challenge is to keep it fresh, surprising, and as non-formulaic as possible.

Palmaltas said...

I am truly disappointed when the "villain" is not brought to justice. There are television series that I start to watch and enjoy until I realize that the villain is part of the series also with the hero always just a step behind in catching him or her. I want closure each week and when I realize that isn't going to happen, I stop watching no matter how much I like the main protagonists. The same is true in reading a mystery series.

G.M. Malliet said...

One mystery writer I love - still love - has started writing "open-ended" mysteries that are real head-scratchers. The bad guy does get away and I don't like it at all. In fact, there is some doubt about who the bad guy really is.

Genre-busting and experimental, sure, but I'm an old-fashioned reader.

Darrell James said...

I like for stories to wrap themselves up nicely and have all the loose ends tied. I guess I'm an "old fashioned" reader too.

Alan Orloff said...

I like it when the bad guy gets his due, but if the book is well-written, and the ending makes sense, I usually don't mind it too much if there is some ambiguity.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I expect the mystery to be resolved by the end of a book, but often the personal story arc is left dangling in series. I'm OK with that - in fact, I've done it myself! One of the things I love about series is the evolving personal relationships, and some ambiguity at the end of a book just makes me more eager to read the next one.

Beth Groundwater said...

I don't consider readers who want justice to be served to be "old-fashioned," just true to human nature. These writers who are experimenting with open endings and unresolved plots are trying to go against human nature, leaving readers with the unnerving experience of being dissatisfied rather than the rewarding experience of being satisfied. And I don't think dissatisfied readers will buy more books by an author who left them feeling that way!

The personal story arc of the protagonist is another matter altogether. If she doesn't get her man or resolve her feud with her brother, that's okay with readers--just so long as the bad guy is punished!

j. a. kazimer said...

It's interesting how different genres have different expectations on the end of a novel. I write both urban fantasy and mysteries, and while I prefer closure, many of my urban fantasy readers are okay with looser endings. Good post. Thanks for it.

Mom2MandJ said...

I once read a mystery where the killer was seen jumping off a boat during a storm. The body was never found, so the reader does not know if they drowned or got away. I did not like that ending. I definetely like closure.

Terry Shames said...

I recently wrote a book in which one of the characters was complicit in the crime. I felt sorry for her and originally couldn't have her arrested. But in the end, I knew she had to be brought to justice--and my protagonist agreed!

Chris Eboch said...

I like closure - and a happy ending. Though Holmes chased Moriarity for years, and that worked.

Thanks for the post. I've been pondering just what happens to the villain in my work-in-progress, and this gave me some guidance.

Chris Eboch, writing for adults as Kris Bock
Rattled: romantic suspense in the dramatic and deadly southwestern desert

Holli said...

I have to have closure. My favorite is when the good guy gets to kill the bad guy himself, but arrested and prosecuted is almost as good. I can't stand it if the bad guy gets away, unless the next book is already published and the bad guy gets it in the next one.

I don't need every loose end tied up--sometimes it's unrealistic in mysteries to have everything tied with the bow, but I have to know who lives, who dies, and who gets caught.

On this week's NCIS, (SPOILER ALERT HERE) the bad guy wasn't caught and we don't know who he is. It ended with one of the characters getting a drink sent to him with an eyeball in it, presumably from the killer, who manages to get away moments before the team realizes he was there. Next week's episode doesn't look like it picks up where this one left off, and all in all, I feel cheated and unsatisfied. If it was a movie, I would have wanted my money back.

Holli Castillo

Beth Groundwater said...

See? All of you who gave examples of being dissatisfied and unhappy with unresolved endings are verifying what I've been saying. For mystery readers (and watchers), especially, justice must be served. We have to know that the villain didn't get away with committing the crime. Even Terry S's protagonist agrees with me! :)

jennymilch said...

I know why I read mystery/suspense/thrillers--it's to right an unjust world. Yet when I say this, I often feel (and have sometimes gotten charged with being) simplistic. I read a review of Stuart O'Nan's STILL MISSING recently (and I tend not to read reviews...perhaps this is why) that said he "avoided the cheap pay off of a thriller". I assume that's because
the plot didn't resolve. And I found myself thinking, Hey, I'll be cheap.

I can't wait to see how you did it, Beth! Your book is only a few down on my TBR now...yay :)

Nancy Lynn Jarvis said...

I love old style British mysteries where after being exposed, the killer excuses himself for a moment to go to the library and a shot is heard.

Beth Groundwater said...

There's nothing cheap about giving readers the payoff they want. It's just as hard to plot a satisfying ending as one that leaves everyone hanging. In fact, it may even be harder!

LOL, Nancy! I love it--self-administered justice.

G.M. Malliet said...

Nancy - I'm with you. Wraps it up so neatly when the killer is considerate like that.

Dru said...

I need closure in the mysteries I read, especially justice for the victim.

Beth Groundwater said...

Sure sounds to me like those of us who want justice and closure in our mysteries are in the vast majority!

Mayhem and Magic said...

I think another reason we need closure in mysteries is that we don't always get it in real life and it bothers us - for example the JonBenet Ramsey case or the Zodiac....