Why Jesse Stern is my writing hero

(ETA: For NCIS fans who missed Season 8’s Enemies Foreign/Enemies Domestic two-parter, beware of spoilers)

Wow. Last night’s NCIS ep still has me speechless. Jesse Stern is the master. He took loose ends that have been dangling for years in a bunch of different storylines and wrapped them all up in one package that was so well-crafted it seemed inevitable.

Several years ago, while I was working on my failed mystery novel, a friend and I got into a discussion and he proclaimed that he never read fiction because “you get to the end and they make it all up.” Sad to say, at the time that was a pretty good description of the ending to my book – one reason I scrapped it after rewrite six or seven. That’s why I’ve always disagreed with the assessment. IMHO, good fiction is good precisely because the ending doesn’t seem made-up. It seems like that’s what had to happen. When all the plot threads and characterization come together to make an ending that seems like it had to happen the way it did, the story has succeeded, no matter what medium is used to tell it.

It’s a skill I’ve been trying to develop as I tell the stories in my Breathe series. Until last night, I thought I was getting pretty good at it. Life, the current WIP, has threads and pieces from more than a dozen storylines that should all come together in the end for a powerful tale. And yet watching Jesse’s work last night and seeing how loose threads from several storylines and multiple seasons came together in the end, tying up every question I’ve ever had about Vance, as well as several about Gibbs, Jenny and Eli, I’m humbled. NCIS is known for dropping breadcrumbs and leaving them dangling for weeks or months, even across several seasons. Jesse and the cast and crew did just the opposite last night, taking many of those loose ends and questions and using them to create a seamless picture.

I don’t know if Jesse and TPTB at NCIS had planned out this storyline right from the first appearance of Vance in S5 with the danish exchange that capped things off last night. Whether they did and this was just the final execution of a plan that’s been more than three years in the making, or whether Jesse just challenged himself to tie up these ends that had been dropped without an endgame in mind, it worked. The story didn’t just work, it came to life. All the threads, all the breadcrumbs — they came together in 44 minutes of magic.

This is the type of storytelling I aspire to do one day. Jesse already was the dispenser of the most invaluable piece of plotting wisdom I’ve received to date with his explanation of building ToC from the HWYS moment at the end of Act III. Enemies Domestic now becomes the standard to which I aspire when building my own stories.

And on that note, I’m off to rethink the rest of Life because my plan for pulling the pieces together now feels clunky and completely obvious.