Thursday, April 12, 2012

Leaving the reader wanting more

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?


  1. There are conventions, and then there are personal preferences. I discovered very long ago that while I didn't dislike the 'happy ever after' sort, the endings that resonated long after never were the tidy type.
    Sometime the story tells the writer where to leave it. No formulas.

    1. Yes, I totally agree, Mirka. When it comes to endings, I prefer more rather than less. However, this ending I'm working on at the moment needs to be fast. I actually really love it and think it's totally intriguing, but it's been strange writing in a different way than I'm used to.

  2. I hate ambiguous endings. I like concrete endings. I HATE cliffhanger endings. Boo!!! LOL.

    But I do like an ending that is fulfilled but still leaves something for you to ponder. Like you, I also thought about the children of Harry and Hermonie/Ron's kids too.

    1. Have an opinion much? ;)

      Ohhh, glad to hear I'm not the only Harry Potter end fan! And yes, what you like in endings is exactly what I want to. Mostly satisfied, but still something to chew on.

  3. Sometimes it's such a fine line between a strong ending and a disappointing one, isn't there?

  4. I really liked the way HP ended. It was satisfying with just a tiny bit to keep my mind churning of possible paths for the next generation. Ambiguous endings annoy me, because I feel like the writer gives up and says, "Oh, I've charted the course for these characters for 400 pages, but now, I'm going to let you figure this bit out."

    1. Hah! I can see that about ambiguous endings. I kind of love them, but they can definitely come across as cop-out, too!

      So glad I'm not the only HP ending fan! I felt a little embarrassed admitting it!

  5. I 'm definitely a fan of the HP ending. ;) I almost always want to know what happens in book characters' lives after the books end. So it's nice to "officially" know how things turned out for the main HP characters. Of course, if Rowling had an unhappy ending in mind, I'd rather not have heard about it. ;)

    However, one of my favorite books (Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay) has an ambiguous ending. The author wraps up the main storylines, but the final line of the book throws you for a big (ambiguous) loop. I didn't exactly love that, but I felt like it fit well with the overall tone of the book (the good guys weren't perfect, the bad guys weren't 100% evil, the ending was a mix of happy and sad). In that particular book, a totally clear-cut ending might have felt out-of-place. --Monica

    1. That's how I feel, too, Monica. My soft, nice side always wants to know the rest of the story!

      You know, I've heard of Kay, but never actually read him (I don't think, at least...). You've sparked me interest, definitely going to check this out! (Wow, two book recs from you now, thank you!).

      I think an ambiguous ending, done well, is one of my favorite endings. So mysterious and fun! But that might be my English major side speaking. ;)

  6. Thanks for the list. I haven't finished the HP series, but now I want to check out this ending.

    I've seen 1 and 2 done well, but I prefer a more concrete ending.

    1. Yeah, there's something about a satisfying, fulfilling ending that's hard to beat! Hope I didn't ruin anything for you with HP! Enjoy!


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