It has to end somehow

If you’re a writer, I’m asking you to forget all the writing rules you know, and think like a reader for a few minutes. How do you like stories and novels to end? I realize your answer will probably depend on the genre of the read, so feel free to give me multiple responses.

I know if the book is one of a series the ending will wrap up parts of the story, but leave something open-ended. I expect there are other factors, besides genre, that influence types of endings.

When I write, it’s almost impossible for me to end on a truly negative note. As a reader, I don’t need a happily-ever-after ending, but a miserable-ever-after ending is likely to leave me wishing I hadn’t bothered to read the book or story. Also, in my writing, I have a tendency to want to wrap things up—most things. And I suppose I have those same preferences I when I read. I’ll be frustrated if I’m left asking, “but what about …” too many times.

That’s not to say I don’t like to wonder what might have happened a day, or months, or years after The End. Sometimes, as with the ending of my novel The Brevity of Roses, one might assume things will go smoothly, but one could be wrong. I don’t mind entertaining the possibilities of future story after the last page, but I expect the author to have finished the story they’ve just told me.

I’m told literary journals love ambiguous endings. What exactly does that mean? I don’t mind a twist or a bit of surprise at the end to make me think back through the story for clues I missed, but you leave me cold if you leave me screaming, “What the heck?!”

I’m reasonably intuitive. I like nuance. I don’t need everything spelled out for me, in fact that annoys me. But an author needs to respect my trust.  I’ve read stories that kept me guessing, a bit confused even, but I read along expecting it would all fall into place by the end. When it didn’t, that author made me one angry reader.

Of course, I’m asking about endings because I’m struggling with writing one. That’s why I’m asking you AS A READER, how do you like your endings served?

21 thoughts on “It has to end somehow

  1. I think that literary journals are an entire species on their own. The stuff I’ve read and written is completly different, and an ambigious ending is almost inevitable given that normally a literary short is ambigious itself. A vignet, a slice of life, sometimes even just one thought, one moment, how can it end but with leaving the reader pondering, and I think that’s what’s meant by ambigiouty in this place.

    Now, in a novel, entirely different thing. I need an ending, and normally a happy one. I’m so crazy that I’ve re-written endings of novels that I don’t like, (in my mind only of course). Going all that way, forming all those attachements, well, I like my happily ever after. And I think that may be a problem in my own novels, but we’ll see about that.

    Good luck finding your ending. My advice, go with your gut.
    (wow, I’m just a chatter box lately!)

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    1. Thanks for weighing in, Jennifer. 🙂 I’ve certainly read my share of those literary shorts, and you’re right, how could they have anything other than an ambiguous ending? I think my problem is that I’ve seen that ambiguity rule applied to shorts that are not high literary and that’s what confuses me.

      I think you’ve just been quiet for so many months (online) that you feel like a chatterbox now. 😉

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  2. Pretty much as you said – in my reading and in my writing, I like resolution without a lot of loose ends – but not to where everything is tied up with pretty sparkly bow (unless that fits the tone of the entire novel, of course!) I am writing the last of a three-book trilogy and I hope that the first two ended with resolutions but left open the possibility for one to want to read more. In this last book, I pretty much need to wrap up all three of the books best I can. So I do understand the “ending angst” a writer may have!

    In my Sweetie book, I worried readers may balk at my ending – but I found I couldn’t end it any other way! I tried – believe me, I did. But every other ending fell flat or short — it really was the only way I could end it and I just hoped for the best. I’ve received good feedback on this ending, but I noticed a couple of “googlers” asked “what really happened at the end of Sweetie?” – of course, it’s always good if people are discussing your book, right? 😀

    I write the entire book and then after it’s all written, I take a good look at my beginning and my ending and see what’s what — there’s that “hindsight and foresight and middlesight” all there that helps me to see the entire picture at once.

    Ps – I am publishing editor of an online journal (“literary journal”) and we don’t look for those kinds of endings – we simply look for a good story!

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    1. Thanks for sharing your insights, Kat. 🙂 Good advice to reevaluate how the parts of the story work as a whole after you’ve finished writing.

      You’ve intrigued me now. Your books are on my TBR list, and I hope to be able to start buying books again soon. And yes, it’s nice to have people talking about your books. Controversy sells too.

      Yes, I know about your Rose and Thorn Journal. I’ve had my eye on it for some time. I’m happy to know you’re not one of those that insists on ambiguous endings.

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  3. I read mostly history and naturally can have no literary opinion on who won the war and such. But I do take a break and like sci-fi and adventure /intrigue. One thing that irks me is after 376 pages of “Indiana Jones” type action the whole thing gets wrapped up in the second to last page with the last page an aftermath. I don’t have alternate suggestion but that seems a bit improbable. Also I trash the book unfinished if the funny guy gets killed by the bad guys. The funny guy should survive. Hope for the happy ending in fiction but do accept that there have been tragic losses along the way. There is a price for happy ending. Without that the fully happy ending is too fairytalelish. In life, rarely do we get 100% of our wish if indeed it comes true at all.

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    1. Sounds like you tend to identify with the funny guys, Carl. 😉 Seriously though, I think we all like books where we can identify with a character. It’s true that we rarely “get 100% of our wish”, but I think there’s a place for the fairy tale ending. Sometimes a reader wants a complete escape from their reality. That’s why sweet romances are so popular.

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  4. I don’t necessarily need a completely happy ending, or even a bittersweet ending, but it has to fit with the “rules” the story has set up so far. A lot of the horror stories I read end tragically, often with impending violence, because of something the protagonist missed, but that last monster doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Likewise, I’ve read stories with happy endings that also didn’t come out of nowhere. I think the most realistic endings are those that are kind of gray: yes, the hero got what he wanted, but he worked hard and made sacrifices, and might not be able to go back to his old life.

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    1. Thanks for contributing to the conversation, dante668. 🙂 I agree that the ending should fit the rules of the story. (That’s why I hated the ending to LOST.) And yes, “gray” endings reflect real life, don’t they?

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  5. It’s funny how endings can be perceived regardless of the author’s intent. I will finish a book thinking things are nicely tied up and when my sister reads it she says, ‘I like how they left the possibility of another book…then I have to put my thinking cap on and sure enough….

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  6. I am with Carl that the story shouldn’t wrap up too abruptly. There’s a natural “Pause here” in every sequence, that allows the story to continue in the sequel but feels like a Stop also. Leaving a loose end opens the next area of explore.

    What irritates me is the author killing off a character and thus solving all problems!

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    1. I think that would irritate me too, Mary Jean, but I can’t remember reading a book like that. I do remember a type of abrupt ending where, to me, the story just stopped without any resolution, leaving me saying, “What? That’s it?!”

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      1. Jody Piccoult, My Sister’s Keeper, dealt with a very real contemporary problem. Killed the character. But I admire how she starts with contemporary “moral” problems with which we are wrestling.

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        1. I haven’t read that book, Mary, or seen the movie, but a lot of readers didn’t like that ending, and they changed it in the movie version. I’ve never read any of Picoult’s novels, but it seems from the descriptions she usually writes on some contemporary social or moral issue. I should probably read one of her books.

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  7. Like you, I appreciate some ambiguity. As a writer (sorry, it’s too tightly woven to only be half of me), I was taught that a good story closes a door and opens a window. As a reader, I like the story of the main characters’ lives at that moment in time resolved.

    If the ending is not a “good” outcome, I like a note of hope for some/most characters. I don’t like everyone living happily ever after, which I suppose explains why I prefer literary fiction (or commercial literary).

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  8. I agree with Cathryn. A story doesn’t have to be neatly tied up in the end. I don’t mind open or ambiguous endings. As a reader, I prefer positive outcomes, not kitschy “they-lived-happily-ever-after” ones but endings that leave me with some hope, the feeling that life goes on, that there is a little light at the end of the tunnel, the possibility of redemption.
    “A good story closes a door and opens a window” – love that quote!
    Christa

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