I’ve been a voracious reader since early childhood, back when all writing meant to me was holding a fat pencil in my hand and laboriously printing out block letters in never-ending repetition. Now that I’ve mastered the alphabet and focused my skills on stringing those letters together into something publishable, I find that a lot of what I read is filtered through a writer’s viewpoint. I imagine this is the case for a lot of other writers, too. Thus, Bitching About Books was born: an occasional series discussing elements of fiction from both perspectives. I’d love to discuss different tropes or trends we find in the course of our personal reading that interest, intrigue, or irritate us.
One thing that hits on all three is something I’ve seen a lot of lately: the non-ending. Sometimes, it’s just abrupt, like the author just decided she had enough words and X’ed out the old Word document. Other times, it’s drawn out, and the mainplot element is never resolved. I’ve seen this the most in literary novels. As a reader, I’m all: WTH, it’s over? And I never found out the secret? Seriously? I’ve read a couple of literary mysteries (mysteries!) where this happened…..600 pages and the little girl never did find out who killed her older brother. Or the one where the journalist tracks the cult filmmaker down to the ends of the earth (like, literally—Tierra del Fuego or some shit), and then he knows he will finally hear the truth. He does, but you don’t. That’s because it ends.
As a writer, I don’t care for it, either. I feel like I owe it to the characters and my readers to craft a story that ends in a satisfying way. Not necessarily happily, or overly tied up in a neat package with even the problems of the secondary characters handily solved—but something that makes sense in the world I’ve built. I love a slightly ambiguous ending. The main plot has been resolved, but there’s room for interpretation. Done well, it gives a feeling of reality to the characters; that they exist in the world of the story, and will go on after our time with them draws to an end. Personally, I feel like I have a contract with my reader: they’re taking time that they could be spending doing something else, and are investing it in your writing. If I’m lucky enough to have readers who care about what happens next, I’m not going to short-change them. In some genres, you can get away with it….but could you imagine a romance where the hero and heroine didn’t get together at the end, or a mystery where the detective still had no idea who the killer was? I imagine there wouldn’t be too many readers begging to buy your next book. A series can be a special case, but for the love of God, please tell the reader first—and preferably have Book Two out or on the way.
Some people might defend the non-ending as being true to life. At times, life is random, nonsensical, and unsatisfying—no argument there. But here’s the thing: fiction isn’t life. It’s a world we create from a premise. For a reader to believe in that premise, it should make more sense than life does.
So, what do you think? Are there nice and neat endings you’ve hated? Ambiguous ones you’ve loved? Non-endings that did feel satisfying? And what about as writers? Have you ever tried to do a non-ending? How did it work out?
Happy reading (and writing),