The Diner: Post Seven (Brainstorming the Ending)

Okay, I lied. I realized that figuring out a solid ending is going to take a post all its own. This is the place for it, so that we can outline backward from the end.

Let’s start at the end, as is proper. What does the climax to look like? What do I want the hero’s end state to look like?

Ugh. You know what? I’m tired of dancing around the main character not having a name. So I’m going to jump to Google, and search popular baby names around the time that he would have been born. Scrolling halfway down, I find Liam. There are a couple of actors with the name, but it’s not something I see in fiction much, so why not? I’d like to pretend my process is more complex, but that will do for now. Similarly, let’s call our villain Teresa.

There are really only four answers to this multiple choice question. A) Liam dies. B) Teresa dies. C) Both die. Or D) Neither die.

I’m telling a story revolving around a mystery between two characters. If both characters involved die, the mystery didn’t matter. So C is out. I put serious thought into saving them both, but I feel that I’d be breaking a core promise of the premise if no one died at the end of the lunch hour. Option D is out.

Now we have to ask: What tells the better story? A, or B? A, or B? Sorry, couldn’t resist. I think option B is much more traditional. Predictable, even. Hero lives, villain dies. It might still be seen as breaking the promise to the audience. But to be honest, I feel that our characters and themes demand option B. If Teresa lives, then what? Are we adapting a Cormac McCarthy story, where the meaninglessness and the lack of resolution is the point?

Teresa’s entire character is built around having no future left. What would happen if she lived through the lunch hour? I suspect that she’d commit suicide off-screen rather than be taken in by police. I’m not that nihilistic. I’d rather fall into saccharine than be needlessly bleak. And besides, that means that choosing option A is also choosing option C.

Liam also has the potential for meaningful character growth. He’s the one that can take away something from this incident.

Teresa dies, then. But how?

She could kill herself when she realizes that she doesn’t hate Liam anymore. Her hatred was all that gave her something to live for, and we’ve established that it’s likely she will ultimately self-destruct. But that strips away all agency from Liam. Liam has gone through the whole movie to get here. As the main character, his actions should determine where this ends.

Liam kills Teresa.

There are a couple of problems with that. First, Liam is unarmed while Teresa has him at gunpoint for the entire movie. We can write around that; he got her gun, he hid a knife, etc. But the core problem is, why? He could kill her to defend himself. But we’ve established throughout the entire story that he’s trying to save her, to save them both. It might be within his character to kill her in a selfish bid to save himself–depending on whether you believe people are capable of real change–but that would mean that he’s rejected the entire point of what’s happening and turns the story back to pointlessness.

Here’s where setting comes in. If Liam is a regular, then we’ve gotten small talk between him and employees at the diner at the very beginning of the movie. Assuming that the hostage situation isn’t revealed for a while, we get to know at least the waiter through a few more interactions. Teresa could take said waiter hostage (side note: If the waiter is a hostage for the climax, let’s make him a guy to shake up a stale plot element), and force Liam to choose.

This does a few things. Some good, some bad.

First, the bad. If handled poorly, it can feel like a cop out. Sure, make the villain cross a moral line she hadn’t been willing to for the rest of the movie, all so we won’t feel too bad about the hero killing her. So we have to establish that she’s willing to do this at some point. Or maybe make it clear to the audience (but not to Liam) that she’s bluffing.

Now, the good. Liam has been running in the name of self-preservation for the entire story. He’s just learned that his inaction might have cost two lives, and set these whole events into motion. Liam taking action could be the culmination of his entire character arc, and could realistically lead him to being a better person at the end of the film than at the beginning.

If we make the waiter young, teens/early twenties, in college or something, this last choice could represent both of the important choices made throughout the film. The kid is potential. You know, children are the future.

Sorry. I think I threw up in my mouth a little. Liam kills Teresa to save the waiter. It’s tragic, everyone cries, but Liam walks away changed for the better. Maybe even get a denouement where he checks to see if his druggie friend way back when actually died and tries to make amends. He’s fully accepted his past, and can truly move on, instead of only pretending to.

Now that we have the ending, the next part can start to build an outline. Sorry for pushing it back one post. I know that outlining is almost as interesting as showing your math.

Mr. Monster Review

During the summer, I started Mr. Monster, Dan Wells’s sequel to I Am Not a Serial Killer. I read the first half of it in only one or two sessions. Then I put it down for months.

I didn’t put it down because it’s bad—to the contrary, it’s very good. I put it down because, for the first time that I remember, I was filled with such palpable dread that I didn’t want to find out what happened.

In most genres, this would be a failure. In a Psychological Horror, this is a remarkable success. An even larger success is that, when I finally worked up the nerve to pick it back up, I tore through it in one sitting.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is about John, a teenage sociopath, trying his best not to become a killer. When a killer comes to his small hometown, however, he realizes that he is the only one who can stop it. And to do so, he must break rules he put in place to keep himself—and those around him—safe.

Mr. Monster is all about fallout. What happens when he stops the serial killer terrorizing his town? What happens after he breaks his rules? Can he throw back up the walls he’d so relentlessly torn down? Or will he lose what few boundaries he has left, becoming a monster equal to the one he stopped?

The second book is even more compelling than the first. The author makes me empathize with someone who has no empathy, cheering him when he resists his darker impulses, and sitting in quiet terror when he gives in. Despite thinking and doing truly horrific things across the course of the novel, I never stop caring about what will happen to him, never stop rooting for him to do better. John is a complex, dynamic character, and feels real to me.

The supporting cast varies in just how much depth they are given, but almost all of them have thoughts and feelings all their own that John can only guess at, and develop in arcs separate from him. Nearly all the characters’ actions feel informed by what they want and need and from the moment they are in. Almost never do I feel the author’s hand at play.

Dan Wells has a sparse style of writing that makes it easy to overlook the level of skill he consistently applies. There were moments in the novel that made me reread in admiration of a clever turn of phrase, or shudder from deftly-woven foreshadowing. One line sows a seed that is never given more overt attention until it sprouts near the end of the book, making me feel crafty for recognizing its significance.

My only real criticism of the book is that the twist at the start of the third act cuts strings that were woven through the first half of the novel, renders developing storylines moot. In a way, it makes the end of the novel feel separate from the first half. I might have been reading a different book altogether, were it not for the main character’s steady arc. This is made worse by the fact that the twist feels lacking proper setup.

For a lesser writer, this would ruin the entire book. But even as I read that scene, I was absorbed in the tension and driven on by the characters. Dan Wells kept me hooked throughout one of the more jarring moments I’ve read in the last few years. All because, to put it frankly, he’s one heck of a writer.

Overall, Mr. Monster is a better book than the first in the series. It pushed my engagement with the characters and their lives further. But more than that, Mr. Monster gave me moments of dread and terror. And that’s all you can ask for when you pick up a Horror novel.

Book Review: Saint Odd

I consider Odd Thomas to be one of the greatest books ever written, and the character who shares the name to be one of the greatest characters written.

So it’s only natural that I’ve read all the novels, the “interlude” novella, and the prequel short story. It’s only natural that I’d wait impatiently for the moment I could get my hands on the final novel, read it voraciously over the course of the next day, and immediately start tapping out a review.

So, how was it?

About how I’d expected. I loved some things about it, found others lackluster. Some things surprised me, others were just as I’d expected.

After the first few pages, Odd felt like Odd. Following him felt natural and right, as he returned to Pico Mundo. The voice was familiar and comforting, and in places the tension had the same familiar build that drove the early books so relentlessly, so effectively.

The book had several problems, though. The series-long tradition of retcon was firmly in place here, sometimes being just as obvious and cringe-worthy as that in Forever Odd, the second book in the series. In addition, the callbacks to the original novel–of which there were many–felt cheap and forced in many places.

All of that, every last bit of it, could have been forgiven. There were moments of true brilliance in this novel. Moments when it felt true to the original, or even better, when it felt like an honest continuation of the story, and an honest evolution of the character.

But then, the ending.

The last fifteen pages felt like they were only put through one solid draft and never revised. They felt like a summary of what happened, rather than prose SHOWING what happened. They felt lazy and rushed. I felt apathy from the author. And what else could I feel in return but apathy, and perhaps a little sadness?

The book got done what it needed to get done. It didn’t RUIN the overall series. But by no means did it belong in a series with the first novel.

Saint Odd is worth a read  if you’re a die hard fan of the series, who must know how it ends. But if you’re a casual fan, just stick with the first three books. A cynical part of me says to stick with just the first one.