Should you tie up all the ends when you type ‘The End’?

In the Norwegian version of the film Insomnia, one of the characters tells an anecdote that is never finished. It appears inconsequential, perhaps a throwaway line to illuminate character. But good scripts never contain spare remarks, and this interrupted fragment quivers through the rest of the story like a deep note from a cathedral organ.

It is like the job the characters are doing – investigating a murder and having to create the ending for themselves. It  returns later when parts of the story become dreamlike and the main character is tormented by guilt. It is like the everlasting arctic sunlight that won’t allow the day to end.

So leaving this anecdote hanging is a rather clever move by the writers.

 

Closure

Stories need closure – of course they do. We need to feel they ended in the right place. In most genres this does mean tying up all the ends and solving the mysteries. (We’ve all been infuriated by novels that are deliberately teasing us towards their sequels – The Hunger Games and Twilight. They don’t seem to be playing fair.)

In most genres, the fun for the punters is wondering how the murderer will get caught, how the romantic twosome will get together, how the battle was won, how the world was saved (or lost). That’s what they’re there for.

But if you are writing a story that aims to go deeper than the events, perhaps you don’t want to tie everything up or explain everything.

Resonance

Insomnia ties up most of its physical threads – it ends when the case ends. But morally it is anything but neat. The characters leave the story with unfinished business and nagging burdens – and this is its true power. It is the toll paid by those who have to deal with murder. The viewer carries it too, as sharer of this experience in all its ambiguity. (Did ever a post try so hard not to give spoilers?) It plays fair, but it deepens the mystery.

Stories don’t always have to give us answers. Sometimes the questions they give us are as important.

Have you got a favourite story that doesn’t answer all its questions? Or do you hate it when writers do that? Share examples, good and bad, in the comments!

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  1. #1 by Dan Holloway on October 23, 2011 - 4:29 pm

    When it’s done well, I love when an author leaves us hanging. The classic example is Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. My absolute favourite is Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, when Toru is left on one end of the telephone, calling out “from this place that is no place”

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 23, 2011 - 4:33 pm

      Good example, Dan. I read that Villette went that way because the publisher wanted a happy ending and Charlotte Bronte had a gut feeling that was wrong. So we have the ending we have.
      What a lovely quote from Mukakami.
      Funny that you’re the first person here as this post zooms into the ether – it seems designed for readers with your tastes!

      • #3 by danholloway on October 24, 2011 - 10:20 am

        Absolutely – the title grabbed me! In a way what I love is endings that make me wonder – I suppose on reflection the very best example I can think of this in recent years is 2666, which ends befor Archimboldi gets on the plane to the desert, creating a recalcitrant non-vanishing point that contains an almost mythic number of possibilities. Most of all, though, I’m an absolute sentimentalist. I want an ending that breaks my heart but in a fragile, there-is-hope-but-at-the-price-of-sadness kind of way. Murakami does it perfectly. With “Songs…” I got into trouble for it with reviewers who wanted a romantic happy ending. The problem is that life just isn’t like that, and in many cases a “happy” ending would actually be to the long term detriment of a character I hope the reader cares about deeply. I was much more interested in giving her the resources to make something lasting and successful of her life than leaving her “hapopy” but in the state of helplessness where she’d spent most of the novel

        • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 24, 2011 - 8:54 pm

          Dan, you have to write the ending that feels most honest – and if life goes on perhaps the most honest ending is to equip your character to face it. It all depends how you’ve set up the character’s problem to start with. There are many places you could point the focus of a story and create an ending.

  2. #5 by Daniel R. Marvello on October 23, 2011 - 5:11 pm

    I’m a sucker for a happy ending, and I absolutely hate books that completely leave me hanging in a “to be continued” fashion.

    Being an avid fantasy reader, I read a lot of book series. But each story in the series needs to stand on its own. I don’t mind when the books need to be read in order, but I want a sense of closure at the end of each book so I will be satisfied during the interminable wait for the writer (more likely the publisher) to release the next book in the series.

    My Memories of a Future Life did leave me hanging each time (except at the end, of course). But I didn’t mind that because you made it clear up front that each segment was piece of a single story, and the wait for the next installment was only a week or two, not a year or more.

    The first book in my fantasy trilogy does stand alone, although I hope the adventure whets the reader’s appetite for more. The first book obviously does not complete the overall series arc, but it does wrap up the story line for that book and resolves the character’s first inner journey. That’s all I ask for in a book, so it’s the least I could do for my readers.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 23, 2011 - 7:12 pm

      Glad you didn’t mind me leaving you dangling, Daniel – but as you say, that was just individual episodes. And you only had to wait a week! It’s the overall ending that counts.
      With a series, what I finds pulls me to read another book is the characters and whether I think they’ve got further to go. But you have to play fair by the reader and give closure of some kind at the end of each book.

  3. #7 by Matthew Wright on October 23, 2011 - 6:38 pm

    i agree with Dan Holloway.To me, not tying all the ends up – and/or leaving enough clues for the reader to do so – makes a better novel. The best books leave the reader to fill gaps – get the reader’s imagination working. That’s as true of the end as it is of the content. This is particularly so when considering a series – but also true, I think, of the stand-alone novel. One brilliant example of a hanging ending was Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Rendezvous with Rama’, which ended on a gob-smacking punchline. One that was then ruined in the several post-fact sequels that were co-authored and which “explained” everything in heavy-handed fashion. The real magic was in the lack of explanation.

    Matthew Wright
    http://www.mjwrightnz.wordpress.com
    http://www.matthewwright.net

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 23, 2011 - 7:14 pm

      ‘The real magic was in the lack of explanation…’ – well said, Matthew. Sometimes we can explain too much, and sometimes the reward for the reader is greater if they fill in the blanks. But it has to be done with a sure touch…

  4. #9 by Jenny Milchman on October 23, 2011 - 7:15 pm

    I think you said it best–I like the physical ends tied, but moral ambiguity to remain. And I loved Insomnia!

  5. #11 by jperrykelly on October 23, 2011 - 7:27 pm

    Hi Roz, good post! You’ve raised a point I’ve puzzled over quite a bit. The following paragraph appears before the last para in my synopsis (which resolves the protagonist’s quest). The story leaves 1) the fate of mankind and Earth unresolved, 2) a main character captured by aliens who intend to dissect her, and 3) a crucial ‘green energy’ breakthrough stolen and in limbo. Even so, this ending lost points in a writing contest because a judge felt it portrays “too much” resolution. Sigh! What’s a poor writer to do? :<)

    [excerpt] The activist frees her new-found friends. Ralph has a lock on another Nobel Prize in addition to Sylvia's heart. Sylvia has her story, Ralph’s love, and her self-respect. With Cassandra as an ally, Hartmann finds relief from his inner demons—until the activist sets him straight. As mankind’s only hope in the pending interstellar war, she intends to barter her secrets in exchange for global pro-green reforms. The CIA officer protests her scheme will only get her killed. She replies that will be his job to avert as her security chief.

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 23, 2011 - 7:50 pm

      Hi James! It’s impossible to tell until you reach the actual ending in the actual text. Makes me wonder what kind of competition judges on synopses only…

      • #13 by jperrykelly on October 23, 2011 - 8:59 pm

        I agree. It’s a matter of does it work or not. I think it does, so I’ll go with it…

        I hope all is GREAT for you! :<)

        • #14 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 23, 2011 - 10:15 pm

          Busy here, as always! Hope all is well with you.

          • #15 by jperrykelly on October 24, 2011 - 2:22 am

            Things are indeed well with me–thanks for asking! I have a functional keyboard again! Oh bliss! Have you ever tried to edit entire chapters using an ‘on-screen’ keyboard (i.e., typing using a mouse at one character-per-click)? It’s literally torture!

  6. #17 by Tahlia Newland on October 24, 2011 - 12:06 am

    I agree. The main threads should be tied up, but there should always be something left open and moral issues to still come to terms with are good, or an extension of the main theme to continue with eg we got the little bad guy that was the main antagonist this book but we’ve still got to get his boss.

    I dislike it when the main threads aren’t closed, or a new major challenge is introduced at the end – the old cliffhanger. They’re a cheap shot at making the reader want to read the next in a series, but a good ending that still makes the reader want to read more is more subtle than that. Your ending in ‘memories’ is excellent.

    • #18 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 24, 2011 - 6:30 am

      Thanks, Tahlia – glad my ending worked for you! This is turning into such an interesting discussion – what you can leave untied and what you can’t.

  7. #19 by Hittman on October 24, 2011 - 3:04 am

    I hate ambiguous endings. It feels like I’ve been cheated. I’ve devoted many hours of my life to a book and you’ve cheated me out of an ending.

    But…it doesn’t always have to be a cheat.

    William Goldman’s “Heat” features a character who is an expert at edged weapons. One chapter takes place over 27 seconds. He explains every move in great detail – first he turns and slices the forehead of one assassin with a credt card (with a secretly sharpened edge), then turns to another and does something to him, turns back to the first one who is now bleeding into his own eyes, attacks him, turns and yanks off the medaliion he’s wearing, which turns out to be a sharpened ninja-star type weapon, and flings it at the bad guy behind the desk. It’s all over in less than a half minute, and really sticks with you.

    At the end of the books he’s being hunted by four men, and he’s hiding above them on a balcony with a butter knife and the metal screw top from a salt shaker. He reasons that he can take them all out. I don’t have the exact quote, but it was something like It will take him A seconds to take out the first one (it took B seconds), C seconds to take out the second (it took D seconds) and so on. He then drops down on them like a demon from hell – and the book ends. No description of what he did and how he did it is given.

    At first I felt cheated. But damn, I spent the next several days imagining various ways the scene played out. That’s when I realized it was a great piece of writing.

    • #20 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 24, 2011 - 6:33 am

      Hittman, what an interesting example. Is that the script of the film starring Robert de Niro? Did it come from a novel?

      Was it William Golding who ended a book with ‘Who would have thought [insert name] would have a gu-’?

      • #21 by Hittman on November 11, 2011 - 6:29 am

        No, that was a different tale with the same title. The movie version of this book stared Bert Reynolds, and as I recall it wasn’t very good.

        Never heard that closing line before, but I like it.

        • #22 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on November 11, 2011 - 6:55 am

          Funnily enough, I’m reading Goldman’s Heat now. Can’t put it down! Thanks for coming back to this thread and answering my question!

  8. #23 by Sally on October 24, 2011 - 10:14 am

    Hi Roz!

    I read a novel once that (I didn’t realise) was part of a series. I hate series; had I known I would have avoided it. Can’t recall the name, but it wasn’t very good. On top of that, I got to the end and the last scene literally ended on the type of cliffhanger that you would expect to see halfway through the novel.

    To me, the perfect ending is one which ties all important ends up, but has the potential to carry on if you really want it to – even though in practice it would be pointless to carry on. It must be self-contained, yet have the feeling of “but life went on …”. I suspect the psychology of it is that the characters are kept alive in some way, and the reader can decide for themselves what happened next.

    As an excellent (but movie) example of what I mean was Terminator 2. Worst movie example: Terminator 3, the fatalistic tone of which ruined the first two movies, since their central message had been that humans can change their destiny. The series shouldn’t have continued, despite the potential that existed for the possibility. I comforted myself with the thought that the first two were Cameron’s movies, and he (and Linda Hamilton) had rightly worked out that it wasn’t a good idea to get involved the third time.

    • #24 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 24, 2011 - 8:56 pm

      Funny you should mention Terminator, Sally. I was going to bring up Terminator 1 if someone else didn’t. I thought that had a terrific ending and in a way it was unfortunate that they had to make a sequel. I loved the trembling note of doom with that last line ‘there’s a storm coming’ – but I felt there was enough closure and enough of a journey to make it feel complete.

  9. #25 by Deb Atwood on October 24, 2011 - 3:58 pm

    Interesting point. I just finished The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman. In many ways a lyrical, haunting read, the novel carries about a dozen threads, and the author ties up each and every one by book’s end. She wove Abenaki mythology throughout, but knotting that mythology into each thread at the end became a little tedious. Though I was happy with the ending, I could have made some of the connections by myself.

    • #26 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 24, 2011 - 8:57 pm

      I’ve never read that, Deb. It does sound a little exhausting and perhaps an argument for letting the reader do some of the knotting.

      • #27 by Deb Atwood on October 24, 2011 - 10:03 pm

        Yep, I thought if I read about one more red-tipped blackbird feather falling from an overhead branch, I was going to have to upchuck. The rest of it worked well, however…

  10. #28 by Jill Kemerer on October 24, 2011 - 5:04 pm

    I love when a book leaves me with questions but gives me enough to come up with my own answers. The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a good example (sorry, can’t remember the name of the author). It didn’t wrap everything up in a tidy bow at the end, but it did leave me with a sense of yes-this-is-how-it-was-supposed-to-end.

  11. #30 by Ileandra Young on October 24, 2011 - 9:02 pm

    Actually I think its a very powerful devise, but I’d be too scared to try it myself. I like reading it, but in truth I’d almost feel mean doing that to my readers.
    A sense of closure is important, though, again, I suppose it depends on what sort of story you’re reading/writing.

    If it is an action/thriller/adventure/romance, then of course you want to see it end, be that well or in tears. But if its a story about life’s journey or lesson’s learned, they it can be okay to leave those open simply because its rare to get a complete answer in real life any of those circumstances. So many of life’s questions are unanswered that surely its natural that books that touch on that are the same?

    ~As an aside, when films do it, most of the time it just feels as though they’re leaving space for the sequel, which is really annoying when the film was perfectly satisfying on its own.

    • #31 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 25, 2011 - 6:30 am

      ‘Leaving space for the sequel’ – that’s really irritating, and is done deliberately not to finish the story. But aside from that it’s interesting to think about what we need ‘closed’ and what we don’t mind leaving less clear.

      • #32 by jperrykelly on October 25, 2011 - 3:42 pm

        I think it’s essential that writers answer the questions or fulfill the needs that propels the protagonist on her journey. Initial quests often lead to higher or more vital quests which, if realized, may open doors to sequels without feeling like a cheat–perhaps by making plausible a previously unthinkable hope. This happens to Carol in “My Memories of a Future Life.” First she wants to know something, which naturally leads to her needing to know something else…and the answer to the second question leads to future potentials that–except for the book’s plot and resolution–would have been unthinkable at the outset. The book is complete and satisfying not because it leaves a thread unresolved but because its resolution creates new possibilities..

        • #33 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 25, 2011 - 7:40 pm

          ‘Initial quests ofren lead to higher or more vital quests….’ couldn’t have said it better myself! Thumping the desk in jubilant agreement with you, James! (And for the fact that you felt I pulled it off in MMoaFL…)

  12. #34 by osozereposo on October 25, 2011 - 2:38 pm

    I think there is a difference between “Leaving space for the sequel” and having a cliffhanger type ending for a multi-book long plot. The first of a series will naturally not answer every question, but it should feel like a complete unit of story if not a complete story in itself.

    • #35 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 25, 2011 - 7:38 pm

      That feeling of completeness is what makes the difference, Connie. And as you say it’s possible to do that while leaving plenty of room for more.

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