A couple I knew raved about a local church. Every time they went they felt engaged and inspired by the pastor's message. In fact, they got into the habit of eating lunch together afterwards, talking for hours about the sermon (now that I think about it, perhaps that's when they fell in love. Awww....).
So of course I was anxious to go myself, and hear this pastor's wise words. He started out good, interesting, with complex, thorny issues and questions. Then he stopped. He prayed, and instructed everyone to stand up to sing the next hymn. I was totally confused: he didn't finish the sermon! He didn't answer any of the questions he posed.
"Does he always do that?" I asked my friends afterwards, expecting them to be as disappointed as I was. "Every time," one of my friends answered. "Isn't it great?"
I've been thinking about that pastor lately (do I need to say I never went back to his church?) and different expectations, especially around ending books. Books, much like church services, should leave a reader (or visitor) thinking. But there's a fine line between leaving a reader pondering a story long after they've closed the book, and leaving a reader wondering what just happened. And of course readers (like my weirdo church friends!) have varying tastes.
Here are a few ways I've seen authors tackle these sorts of endings, with varying amounts of success:
1. Missing the final scene
I recently read a gorgeous, romantic book. At the end the characters finally come together, realize they love each other, and start towards each other's arms. And then the book ended. I was sooo disappointed! After all that, didn't I (not to mention the characters!) deserve a a good kissing scene? Course, the author might argue whatever she had written would've been better left to my imagination.
2. Ambiguous endings
These are the endings where a reader isn't quite sure what's happened, or what's about to happen; the story ends at a dramatic turning point. The reader is left sorting through clues, trying to decide how to interpret the story's end, what they wish to happen, what the author might have intended--and hopefully thinking about the book well after it's finished. Henry James' Portrait of a Lady ends this way, and it's never ceased to fascinate me. Will Isabel stand up for herself or continue to live in misery?
3. Happily Ever After, except...
Do you remember the end of the movie Little Shop of Horrors? Seymour and Audrey are finally together, with a little house of their own, the plant forever vanquished, except... as the camera pans out, in the woods behind their house the viewer sees little a little bud, a new plant growing. Ohhh, shivers!
4. Twenty years in the future...
A lot of people criticized the ending to J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series with (spoiler ahead, but do you really not know?) the characters all grown up, with children of their own heading off to Hogwarts. Some readers felt Rowling left nothing to the imagination. But on my recent re-reading, I found myself wondering about the children, what would happen to them, if they'd have adventures of their own, and if their lives would be safer given their parents' sacrifices.
Of course, an advantage to this type of ending (Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series has a similar, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination ending) is that it hopefully leaves readers fulfilled. And after seven books, or 9 hours of movies, or whatever, isn't that exactly how you want them to feel?
Can you think of any other ways to leave your readers wanting more? What endings have worked on you? And, most importantly, the ending of Harry Potter: yea or nay?