How to Write an Ending No One Can Guess

writingThere are two ways to do it best. One is to start with an ending and work backward. I did this in Postmarked for Death, which began as a nightmare I had, involving an abandoned missile silo taken over by a madman. Not the usual scenario, either: there was no Hollywood missile, as in the movie “Twilight’s Last Gleaming.” It was just two guys in the dark, each with a gun, listening intently for movement in the utter silence. The advantages to this method is that once you know where you’re going, it’s a journey of discovery to get there. Why are these two guys there? How did they get there—what led to it? Once you know who they are, and have established them vividly, the novel will write itself. Better if each is not a walking cliché (walking dead man) but a fallible, real person with both good and bad in them. They have made wrong decisions in the past, but redemption comes in making the right decision in the end. The second method is not knowing the ending. Again, you have the main character fleshed out. And a firm idea of what his or her dilemma is. In the case of The Methuselah Gene, I knew it was going to be a thriller about Big Pharma: how pharmaceutical drugs are tested and produced, combined with how the science of longevity may produce a drug in the near future to extend life by a decade or more. (Science validated recently in the Ron Howard series Breakthroughs.) With the main character (a bachelor researcher tortured by anxiety) fleshed out, it became a matter of doing research, and interviewing a few scientists in the field of genetic engineering so that the plot idea would be plausible. After that? A blank sheet of paper. No idea what would happen to this character, who he would meet, and how the plot idea would evolve. I simply put him into a situation, and listened to what he might say. As one of my fav actors, James Garner, once put it in his biography: “I don’t act, I react. Give me a reactor over an actor every time. As soon as you look like you’re acting, you’re dead. You’re just chewing the scenery.”  That’s the way I did it. I put him in motion, and told it from his point of view. He surprised me. That way, there is no way the reader won’t be surprised too. Just let go.

kim jong un

Why I Like THE ROCKFORD FILES

James Garner

Just heard James Garner’s biography on audio, and was struck, not just by his honesty, candor, or his anecdotes on movies, but his generous attitude and lack of ego, despite being labeled as a “curmudgeon.” The Rockford Files is one of the few TV series that I truly enjoyed, due to its offbeat yet believable writing, its humor, and its lack of bling. (One of many surprises, Jack Warner of Warner Brothers was a foul-mouthed mini-Hitler who hated actors, writers, and agents…but he was afraid of Garner, thinking he might pick him up and throw him out the window, as Errol Flynn once threatened to do!) Garner appreciates writers, unlike many other actors, and never tried to change scripts as bigger egos tried to do.

Sopranos Rockford Files

Latest revelation is that The Sopranos began with The Rockford Files…the Soprano’s writer was the same guy who wrote two episodes of Garner’s hit series.

If you can’t live up to “What would Jesus do?” as a motto, don’t descend to “What would Joel Osteen do?” but instead consider “What would Jim Rockford do?” In a world of hustlers and con men, Rockford maintained his honesty and dignity, was loyal to his friends, and treated everyone as equals. Modest, yet unimpressed by fame or fortune, he gave everyone a fair shot, yet never fell for a sucker punch twice, and had a nose for deceit. A man of his word, even if he bent the rules, Rockford was nobody’s fool, yet he had a heart of gold. Women depended on him, even if they never took him seriously in the end, living in that trailer, and often betrayed him. But he never used them. Simple and sincere, Jim Rockford was one of a kind, with his own thoughts and values, which were unshakable. Often the victim, the good guy who finishes last, he reemerged intact, able to enjoy the sunrise of the next day. How many men in the real world can go through what he went through, yet remain true to themselves?  —JL

James Garner dies