For anyone in the area and able to come, on Saturday I’ll be at the Children’s Festival of Reading in Knoxville, Tennessee. Here’s a link to the event: I’m speaking at 10:45 am and 12:45 pm and signing books after each presentation. If you come, please let me know you heard about it here.

On to the post topic, on November 27, 2011, Jenna Royal wrote, Does anyone have any thoughts on open or unresolved endings? I’ve been fascinated with endings lately that don’t end up where you think they do, or that don’t really end at all. How do you make one that’s still satisfying, even though it’s unexpected?

I’ve written one unresolved ending. It was in my short story “Little Time” that was published in an anthology called Unexpected, which is probably long out of print, but you may be able to find a copy somewhere. It’s one of my favorite of my few short stories. Here’s the gist: Erica, a middle schooler, recently moved to a new school where she has no friends. Her parents are super busy with their careers and not interested in her. In fact, in the first scene she overhears them saying she bores them.

On her spring break she walks on open land not far from her house and follows a sign that reads Hidden Village. In a barn she discovers an enormous town of doll houses complete with dolls and animals, dogs, a zoo. Turns out that the dolls and animals are alive, shrunken, and that the village is a benign utopian experiment. (Among other things, these tiny people and animals age very slowly.) Erica is invited to join by being shrunk too.

At the end I don’t reveal Erica’s decision, although it’s clear to me, but I didn’t want to tie the story up with a bow.

The key to a satisfying ending lies long before the end is reached. In “Little Time” the seeds are sewn in that first scene; Erica is unmoored to her life. Most of us would be sorely missed if we vanished; we’d be irresponsible and cruel to just go. Not Erica. But I didn’t stack the deck so the reader thinks, You have to join. I wish I could. It’s a real choice.

In a mystery series, the mystery itself is usually tied up with that bow by the end of the book, but the larger, ongoing story of the detective is left open. This is a neat way to end. The reader gets the satisfaction of a solution and the sizzle of no solution. We remain attached to the heroine and her troubles. She may be lonely, afraid of the dark, uncontrollably honest, whatever. She may not even have troubles, but the future course of her life isn’t established. Elodie at the end of A Tale of Two Castles is happy, but we know she’s going to have more adventures, and we don’t know whom she’s going to marry (if she’s going to marry), where she’s going to live, whether she’ll stay a dragon’s assistant. And we haven’t found out if the dragon Meenore is male or female or if the ogre Count Jonty Um can find a place among humans where he’s accepted and not feared.

In my opinion, this kind of series (not just mysteries) doesn’t ever have to be resolved for the main characters. I’m thinking of comic book characters, and I’m sure there are legions of other examples. We don’t want Superman or Spiderman to achieve permanent happiness. If they get a break from their troubles, we enjoy it with a little lump in our throats. It’s all the more beautiful because their moment of relief is fragile and certain to end.

A mystery series is kind of an ending cop-out, I guess. The author has the (somewhat) easier task of solving the mystery and never has to face the more difficult work of finding an ultimate ending. Nancy Drew sleuths on with new authors.

In the classics, there are no absolute final endings either. Writers keep going back and resuscitating established stories. I assume James M. Barrie thought he’d finished Peter Pan, but writers, including me, are forever spinning new takes on the original. William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and many more get the same treatment. Even the Greek myths, which generally end in death, are revivified.

If you haven’t read the young adult novel The Giver by Lois Lowry, spoiler alert! Skip this paragraph. The book ends in uncertainty. We don’t know if Jonas makes it to safety, but I wouldn’t call the story unresolved. Jonas leaves the security of his home and acts morally. The problem that the book raises is answered whether or not Jonas survives.

This was a prompt from my post of January 26, 2011, which was also about endings: You may know the story, “The Lady and the Tiger.” If you don’t, it’s basically this: A princess, whose nature is jealous, falls in love with a man below her station. The king finds out and arranges a punishment for him. The man is thrown into an arena with two doors. Behind one is a beautiful maiden and behind the other a tiger. If he picks the maiden door, he lives, but he has to marry her. If he chooses the tiger door, he gets eaten. In the arena he looks to the princess, who knows what’s behind each door, for a signal. She has to decide whether to endure his marriage to someone else or condemn him to death. The story has no ending; the reader is asked to decide what the princess will do. So the prompt is to write the ending. If you didn’t do it then, you can now.

“The Lady and the Tiger” is certainly unresolved, and it does this curious and marvelous thing: it turns the problem around to point at the reader. Until we get to the final question mark it’s about the princess and her forbidden love. When it finishes without an answer, the problem, jealousy, becomes us. What do we think of human nature? How would I behave in this situation? How do I believe others would act?

The strangest non-ending I’ve ever read was Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (adult), which the author, Thomas Mann, never finished – he died the next year. If I remember correctly (which I may not – I read it many decades ago), it ended mid-sentence. I had loved the book up until then, and I knew this would happen, but it was still a teeth-gnashing experience.

The only real ending sin is failing to respond to the problem a story sets out. I don’t know how that failure could be made to work and satisfy; maybe if you’re writing humor it could be done. The conclusion of Ella Enchanted, for example, had to be about the curse. The end of all Jane Austen’s books had to be about a young lady unraveling her own character flaw that stood between her and a suitable match. The finale of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca had to be about innocence, although that problem is wonderfully disguised in the novel.

Here are a couple of prompts:

•    The Giver succeeds, I think, because, while the surface ending is uncertain, the deeper problem is resolved. You do the same thing. Simone is preparing for a competition, whatever kind you like, real world or fantasy. Write the story and end it without the reader finding out how she fares. However, decide on the real issue underlying her struggle and solve that. The real issue could be gaining self-confidence, winning someone’s approval, or something else.

•    I’m not a fan of Alice in Wonderland because I think the story lacks a problem. One fantastical thing happens after another without any reason. Rewrite the beginning, giving Alice a problem or something she desperately wants. Then write your own ending and anything in the middle that you need.

Have fun, and save what you write!

And a reminder: please share any writing success you’ve been having on the blog.

  1. I loved this post, I have read the giver and liked it more for beginning part than the end, I heard that in Messenger, the third book in a loose series about dystopian cultures, you find out what happens to Jonas. The fourth book is rumored to be called Son and is supposed to be in process.

  2. I always love reading this blog, it fills me with inspiration, and it's really helpful!
    Recently, I've started writing unsolved endings. Either that, or endings with a permanent end, for example, blowing up the world so I won't be tempted to write a sequel (long story of why I don't want too.)
    In Mockingjay, the last book in the Hunger Games series, the ending (SPOILER ALERT) ends unexpectedly after a series of shocks and leaves a lot of readers disappointed by the way things turned out, yet its finished and no one complains.(SPOILER ALERT OVER)
    I prefer reading things with a very finalize ending, like Ella Enchanted. (SPOILER) She gets married. There's an epilogue. It seems final. Its an absolutely wonderfully written, and satisfying, ending! (SPOILERS ARE OVER)
    But books like Mockingjay are also very appealing. The make it so you can't forget the ending no matter how hard you try, and that the last book will plaque you mind and leave it spinning for months….
    I'm not sure which one I like best, but both sound pretty good…I guess it depends on how annoyed you want to make your readers. 😉
    Wow, this comment almost had no point…..

    • Mockingjay is my favorite book of the Hunger Games trilogy actually. I think because Mockingjay was so different from Catching Fire and The Hunger Games, people didn't like it as much.

  3. I've read "The Lady and the Tiger" and it killed me! I was so mad at the author! But it worked so well and it's so unforgettable, that it's pretty genius, too.

  4. Thanks so much for answering my question! I loved the Giver – it was such an amazing book. I loved the ending, too. It left me agonizing over what happened, but in a good way. I think that if it had ended with any more resolution, it would have only taken away from the story. At that point, the ending didn't matter. It was irrelevant. The important part was that he'd made it that far – the story was already over.

    I also love the idea of The Lady and The Tiger. It doesn't tell you what happens, it makes you think about it. I love stories like that, that make you think . . . they tend to be the strongest ones. 🙂

    Gail – I suspect Erica decides to be shrunk and join the community, but I'm not sure (I haven't read the story) . . . can you share her choice with us? Or are you going to leave us hanging? 😉

    @unsocialized homeschooler – I'm the same way – I'm becoming hooked on mysterious or unresolved endings. They're so much fun! I haven't tried blowing up the world, though . . . I'm more the cliff-hanger type. Also, I just have to say that I love your username 😉

  5. Jenna, thanks! I had an old lady ask me if I was unsocialized because I was homeschooled once, -_- and thus the username was born!
    And blowing up your story's world is very fun! MU HA HA HA HA!! Cliff hangers are epic too!

    Question for everyone: Who's doing Camp NaNoWriMo this year in either June or August? I'm doing both and my usernames the same as it is here!

  6. Thanks for your great comments on this important topic! It reminded me of "Wives and Daughters" by Elizabeth Gaskell. She died before she finished it. I didn't know that when I first read it and I was very upset when the story suddenly stopped. But after I thought about it for a while, I kind of liked that it has no ending. It almost seems like the story just goes on and on.

  7. I have a question… why would those books by Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Mann be published if they were unfinished? Sorry, it's just a little confusing to me!
    I think that unresolved endings are THE WORST, but they definitely are the ones that keep me thinking LONG after the story is done. If that's you're goal, then unresolved endings are great. But I prefer endings that satisfy me, and unresolved or sad ones aren't my favorite! Mockingjay drove me crazy (and my rant would be too long to fit here :] ) just because I believed Katniss should've died in the beginning. (spoiler) So many other people lost their life because of HER! (In my opinion!) But Katniss got the guy, lived happily ever after… And blames her former best friend for her sister's death of which he HAD NO PART!!!!!!!!!! Rant over (and so are spoilers). Suzanne Collins severely disappointed me, but I guess I'm the only one. I'm a big fan of happy endings where most of the characters live. 🙂 Haha, although I've been known to kill mine off quite happily. Does that say something about me? I hope not!
    @unsocialized homeschooler– what is Camp Nanowrimo? I love your username too! I've had some new public schooled friends ask me that too. Haha

  8. BTW, Gail, I wish that you would tell us your events sooner! I might have been able to make it! It made me very disappointed 🙁
    Have you ever considered attending the Southern Festival of Books?

  9. @Lark, yay another HG fan who thinks Mockinjays ending could of been WWWAAAAYYY better!!!!
    Camp NaNoWriMo is like National Novel Writing month, only you can't change your word goals (it has to be 50,000) and you can choose to be part of a virtual "cabin" with other people…. (I'm not really sure how that works, to be honest.)
    I can't tell you how many times people (especially public school students) have asked me if I "miss having friends." -_- Even my public school friends I've had for years ask me questions like that, XD.

  10. Jenna Royal–I don't tell the reader, so I can't tell you!

    Lark–Sorry! I should have posted it sooner. I've never been invited to the Southern Festival of Books, but it would depend on whether I could make it and whether they pay authors to come. If both answers were yes, I'd be delighted.

  11. Lark–Thomas Mann is an important literary figure. Anything by him, even a fragment, would naturally be published. I haven't read any of Elizabeth Gaskell's books, but I assume the same is true of her.

  12. From the website: I had the exact same experience, but it wasn't the author's intent. A while back, I received a faulty copy of Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris. I didn't know it was faulty until it ended mid-sentence in the middle of the climax. Needless to say, I was a wee bit mad about it. Luckily, I was able to read a little more online. Not the whole ending, but enough to guess how it was going to go and not be in suspense.

    P.S. Yes, I'm also homeschooled, and I used to go through the same thing. Then I joined an online school, and I have lots of friends now. 🙂

    In fact… Gail, how do you feel about homeschooling in fiction? Can it make a character too hard for "normal" people to sympathize with?
    I mean, it's a common misconception that homeschooled kids are lonely and unsocialized, but what if your character actually IS? Can you pull that off without offending real life homeschoolers by seeming like you're stereotyping them?

    • Maybeawriter – well, in my opinion, I think as long as you don’t totally say that homeschooling stinks and a person can never have any friends if he’s homeschooled, then you won’t offend homeschoolers (at least you wouldn’t offend me – I’m homsechooled). Actually, I might even be helpful because you wouldn’t have to figure out the complex personalities of all the other kids in his class. Instead you can focus on his family, his neighbors, and other people in his life. I suppose it might be smart to mention somewhere that he knows there are groups for homeschoolers to get out more, but his parents never have time to take him to one or whatever. As long as you handled it carefully and made sure not to send the message, “if you are homeschooled you will live a solitary life,” then you should be safe.
      Come to think of it, you could also make the issue not so much that he’s homeschooled, but that his parents are so overprotective that they shelter him from everything. Then the problem isn’t the homeschooling, it’s the parents.

  13. I’m with Lark – I can’t STAND reading books with big open endings (partly because I have a very active imagination, and if they don’t seal it up for me, then I’ll end up stewing about it for weeks until I’ve thought up, like, five sequels to it). That said, I AM okay with books that don’t resolve the issue if they’re in a series that closes it all up in the last book.

    I’ve been having the worst case of writer’s block the past couple weeks. I know what’s going to happen next, but I just can’t bring myself to sit down and concentrate on writing. It’s so sad. I hope I get over it soon!

    You know what, come to think of it, in my last book, I never actually resolved the main problem. I only solved the underlying issue, which made the big one that I was focusing on for most of the story seem unimportant in the end. Interesting. Maybe I do like certain unresolved endings.

  14. Maybeawriter, I've been homeschooled my entire life and have known some homeschool kids that perfectly fit the homeschooling stereotype of being really unsocialized. Then again, I've also met dozens of others who are extremely outgoing, wild, and have millions of friends.
    I've also met public school students who could pass off as a homeschooling stereotype.
    If you make a homeschooler in your book really unsocialized as a joke, I don't think anyone will take offense, especially if you make it so the idea of homeschoolers being like that so comical no one can take it seriously.
    If your story is serious and you make your character unsocialized and lonely, a few people might take offense, but if you write your character well enough, chances are, people will forget about the stereotype and just enjoy reading about your character!

  15. Maybeawriter–From the perspective of someone who went to public schools, I'd love to read about a homeschooler. There are all kinds in schools, so I would expect all sorts to be home-schooled, too. And – I've said this before – it's a waste of energy to worry about giving offense. You may try hard not to and fail; you may not care and offend no one. And often offending people is good because you're forcing readers out of their comfort zone.

  16. @writeforfun– that's really funny, I totally make up my own endings too if it's unresolved!! My brothers recently got Brandon Mull's newest novel, Beyonders #2, but it was a faulty copy and had a big chunk of it missing during an important battle. My brothers were really mad, and I think I would too, but I would probably stop the book, go to bed, make up some sort of alternate piece to fit in, then pick back up reading the next morning and see how accurate I am. My bff and I also like to poke fun at things (not in a mean way, in a funny way!) by making up the way they "should have been". The Hunger Games is one example. 🙂
    @Maybeawriter– keep in mind, though, that some people who may read your book have never met a homeschooler. I know a couple of those people and they were so fascinated by the fact that I didn't "go to school"!! So if you portray homeschoolers in a funny, over-the-top way (and we probably wouldn't mind) some readers might assume homeschoolers are like that in real life. I love reading about people that are homeschooled, unless they act like a "public schooler" (and that isn't meant to be degrading– it just doesn't make sense unless the character has been public schooled up until that point.) I like writeforfun's idea of the parents being the problem, not the fact that the kid homeschools. Or he could just live in the middle of nowhere– but that might be hard to pull off if you have settings in other places.

    • I've read it too. I liked a lot of things about it but my daughter found it a little too sinister in tone for her tastes. I remember assuming that it was set up for a sequel. The writer may have had one in mind but it wasn't picked up by the publisher. Or it may still be in the works… I think it was a fairly recent book (like the last 4 years or so) and publishing can seem to move unbelievably slow.

  17. I always like stories that aren't slow and get going quickly. But now I look back at my story and am thinking It's going to quickly. I have had my friends read it and they understand the beginning completely. I even have backstory in there but it's just very quick. Is there such a thing as too quick a beginning?

  18. I have a problem with the stakes in my WIP. The reason that the main character doesn't just quit and go home is that she physically can't go home. There's nothing keeping her from settling down. And another character has stakes, but it's mainly about not doing something instead of actually doing something.

  19. Interesting question about open endings. I think I tolerate them more the older I get. Not many books have an ending completely wrapped up like Ella, and I would have *loved* more endings like that as a young reader. I think it probably goes with what writeforfun said, if you have an imagination then your brain gets stuck on a treadmill with an open ending! 🙂

    Jillian – I will be interested to see Gail's answer to your question – mainly it seems that the publishing industry is concerned with books starting too slowly. But, you can start them too fast. I have a manuscript I was getting critiqued at various times and I kept chopping and chopping at the beginning thinking it was starting too slowly – and then I started getting the comment that things were happening too suddenly. :)There is an annotated Charlotte's Web that has an interesting comparison of several different beginnings that were considered.

  20. Hi! My name is Emily. You are my favorite author. I was so disappointed when I couldn't come to meet you at the Worlds Fair Park in Knoxville! I have read lots of your books like Ella Enchanted, Fairest,and the Two Princesses of Bamarre. I read them all the time. I can hardly get my head out of them! So when my 4th grade teacher said to interview someone that has a job we want someday I decided I wanted to see if you would be able to e-mail me back and fourth. one more thing- how do you pronounce "htun"

    Emily S.

  21. I'm sort of saying that the character has nothing to lose. She doesn't fight the bad guy, she doesn't need to fight the bad guy. She's not in danger. She just physically can't go home, because there's not really a home to go back to.

  22. capng – if it really bothers you that there's nothing at stake – if if makes you bored or you just don't like it – you could always invent something to be at stake. I like the suggestions of making someone close to her be in danger, or making her uncertain future be the danger. If it's not boring you and you're just worried about what the reader will think, then I say, FORGET THE READER! Until you revise, that is. The first draft is just getting your story down. You can tweak it later.

  23. @Gail Carson Levine:Do you think writing about a real place that you have not visited yet is not too 'dangerous'? I think that may be a bit of mistake when you compare the story with the real place. (What I mean in here is about a fictional story set in a real place.)Please reply if you can!

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