10 Stories With (Brilliant) Loose Ends

The ending of your story is going to be even more important than its beginning. If the beginning flops, readers will set the book aside and never think about it again. But if the ending fails, your book (and you) will live in infamy in the deep, dark dungeon of reader disdain.

No pressure, right?

Creating the perfect ending isn’t easy, but we can boil it down to one essential objective: leave the reader with a feeling of satisfaction. How do we do that? The answers are as manifold as our stories. But one surprisingly effective way is to not tie off all the loose ends. If we can give readers a sense of continuing motion in our characters’ lives, a sense of progression even after all the big plot issues have been resolved, we will

1. Create a sense of realism and verisimilitude.

2. Engage the readers’ imaginations in filling in the “rest of the story.”

Consider the following “loose ending” masterpieces:

1. The Kid ends just as the protagonist is about to make up with the woman who will become his wife. We don’t see him apologize for his mistakes; we don’t see her forgive him; we don’t see their next step into the future. But we don’t need to. The ending offers tremendous power by indicating what’s going to happen, then leaving the rest up to viewers’ imaginations.

2. Roman Holiday gives us a beautifully bittersweet sense of realism in its final scene, which shows the hero walking away from the woman he loves (and whom he can never be with). The ending is final. Their romance is over. But viewers understand that life goes on for both these characters, and we’re allowed the freedom to speculate about just how that life goes on for both of them.

3. Casablanca offers one of the most celebrated open endings ever. We have no idea what happens to Rick and Ilsa after they part ways in Morocco. The plot details are all nicely tied up and the characters’ future courses are indicated, but where they go from there is entirely up to the viewers. And that’s the beauty of it.

4. The Great Escape offers more closure than some of the other stories on our list, simply because it’s based on actual events. But, even if viewers look up the particulars of the real lives upon which the characters were based, they’re still allowed the opportunity to savor the fact that the plot’s tragedies and triumphs continue well beyond the scope of the film itself.

5. The movie Master and Commander, like the Aubrey/Maturin series on which it’s based, gives viewers an ending so open-ended that it almost doesn’t work. In many ways, its ending is really the beginning of a new story entirely. But isn’t that what every ending is?

6. The Bourne Ultimatum caps the trilogy with a solid defeat of the bad guys. But all we know about the protagonist’s future is that he survives. And yet, surprisingly, that’s enough. Our imaginations can run wild with where he goes from there.

7. Oliver Twist doesn’t give too much indication about what happens in the lives of either young Oliver or the Artful Dodger. Presumably, they both grow to manhood, but the course their lives take after the book ends can only be surmised based on the facts Dickens gave us throughout the story.

8. I.Q., like most love stories, ends happily ever after. But what happens after the ever? The romance has come to a satisfactory conclusion for both characters (and the viewers), but where it goes from there is anybody’s guess.

9. In the 1969 adaptation of True Grit (my favorite presentation of the story), the plot details are all nicely wrapped up. But the relationship between the two main characters isn’t quite resolved. They part ways, perhaps never to see each other again. Who knows? Only the viewer!

10. The Dawn Patrol wraps up the story of one of its main characters with the finality of his death. But the continuing nature of war pushes the rest of the characters forward with inexorable force. We know they go on fighting after the final credits roll, but do they survive? The writers allow their viewers to write the epilogue themselves.

Finding the appropriate balance for which details must be tied off and those that can be left to dangle tantalizingly before the reader’s imagination is going to vary from story to story. Too many loose ends and we risk reader frustration over unanswered questions. Not enough loose ends and our story stops short at the back cover instead of living on as our readers take over.

Tell me your opinion: Do you feel stories are stronger for having a few loose ends?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I absolutely HATE novels or movies where the endings are predictable or sacchrine. I prefer to be left to my own thought, my own possibilities. But, in general, if the book ends routinely the rest of it probably followed the same path and it’s most likely I never read past page 10 as it was.

    Thanks again, for an insightful post.

  2. predictable endings are boring unless it was the only possible way the story could end or if you already know that the story will end that way because it’s the nature of the genre (most romances, for example – we’re reading because we WANT the happy ending). And while I enjoy a good romance now and then I generally prefer stories with an ending that feels right, or satisfying. SPEAK, which I just read, has a very loose ending but was satisfying none the less because the mc finally speaks up. And that was pretty much the point of the book. It doesn’t matter that we don’t hear her words or know what happens after to her or the antagonist. It was the proper ending.

  3. @Donna: Originality is the magic ingredient in any story. It can be tough tough to come by, but it’s always worth the extra effort.

    @Mshatch: There’s always a balance between satisfying the readers’ desire for the inevitable and their wish for something unexpected.

  4. I agree with what you said about what a bad impression a book or the author leaves with a reader if the ending fails. I recently read a book which I generally liked towards the middle but was highly disappointed with the end. I seriously didn’t feel like picking up anything from the author again or the rest of the books in the series (the book was the 1st in a series). I felt better when I found out through wikipedia that the ending of the first book was remedied in the second one. Before then I had never really thought about how important a good ending is. I like loose ends and I like using my imagination to tie them up but sometimes I also wonder how the author would answer if I were to ask them what exactly happened to so and so character after the book ended.

  5. Depends on the author, of course, but not all authors know what happens to their characters after the book ends. If they did, they’d write a sequel. 😉

  6. You know, it’s funny. Even years later, I still remember specific books where the ending was, yes, open… but in a way that made me want to hurl the book across the room. Worse is when it’s a series that ends that way. I remember those stories, but in that ‘make sure you never read another book by this author’ sort of way. It’s self-protective. You feel betrayed by the author. You wonder if they just wanted to get the book/series over with (that’s been my impression from a few, at least).

    That being said, it’s interesting to me how I read through the list above of movies and such, and found myself thinking “that wasn’t open!” Heh. But it was. But it was also _satisfying_, regardless of whether or not it answered every question. Thank you for giving me something to think about in this. Like everything else, the ending really is a fine art.

  7. We have to answer major plot questions, absolutely. There’s loose ends and then there’s loose ends. The best are those that give readers a concrete idea of where the characters’ lives are going, but leave the details up to their imaginations.

  8. I’m going to write a sort of sad ending because someone dies but it’s very purposeful. I’m not sure how to foreshadow and prepare the reader for the end, because my family isn’t fond of sad endings. But if I did it just right, more people would like the ending anyway because there is hope in the village, and light is coming too. I’m not sure I want to write a sequel to the book though because it might ruin the first book in a way.

  9. Personally, I’m very fond of bittersweet endings. You may find this post (on “How to Kill a Character and Avoid Hate Mail“) helpful.

  10. I’m going through a quick mental list of some of my favorite books and films – Seven Samurai, White Noise, The Road, 2001: A Space Odyssey, just to name a few – and they all have open endings. Some more than others. These may explain why I love open/loose endings.

  11. I don’t know if anybody would agree with me, but I think the ending of The Sound of Music fits what you’re describing here. The von Trapps are together, they make a successful escape, but they’re also being exiled from their beloved homeland and have no idea where in the world (literally) they may be going. I’ve always felt it’s hopeful but bittersweet.

    Have you read the book True Grit? What did you think of it?

  12. @outwherethebusesdontrun: I would venture that *most* readers like open endings (to one extent or another) better than closed endings. There’s just more “scope” in them, as Anne Shirley would say. But they have to be done right. There’s a difference between leaving a few loose ends – and not ending the story at all.

    @Elisabeth: Yes, I agree. Sound of Music definitely presents some nice loose ends. And, yes, I have read True Grit‘s book. With a few exceptions, it’s very similar to both movies, but definitely worth the read.

  13. I really loved in The Journey of Ibn Fattouma that we don’t get to see Gebel, the goal of the protagonists journey. Every reader’s version of utopia is personal, and therefore different, so it’s left up to the reader to fill in the blanks. Anything else would be met with “well, that’s not how I picture the perfect community.” We do get to see what doesn’t work for other cities, which in its own way forms our image of the perfect community. The same could be true for many types of these stories: forming an image of something intangible through opposite qualities.

  14. Haven’t read the book, but the idea sounds brilliant. I’m picturing it cinematically with the camera focusing on the protagonist’s face as he sees the city for the first time – and then the screen fading to black. Perfect.

  15. I have a love/hate relationship with open endings. On one hand, when certain things – like large themes – in the film/book/show aren’t wrapped up then I hate it. On the other hand, when the ending brings about a kind of bittersweet feeling or has a full-circle feel to it from where it started off, then I can appreciate it; at the very least I respect it.

    Life isn’t always cut and dry so not all stories should be either. I used to utterly hate pieces that left you a bit hanging but now I’m coming to gravitate them more as the years wear on. I think it’s because stories that aren’t perfect tend to breed equally as flawed characters and those are the ones you can relate to the best. Plus a piece that’s a bit open-ended keeps me coming back to it, imagining how it might have gone from there. If I read a book where cover to cover everything is wrapped up, summed up, and finished, I don’t remember it. What’s there to reminisce about if the character already got complete, full-scene closure for it?

  16. PS – LOVE the movie Roman Holiday. It was a bittersweet ending but I’ve watched it a couple of times since and I love it each time more. There’s something to say about a love story between two honest people, worlds apart, and that don’t get that happily ever after. The execution of it was very well done.

  17. Roman Holiday is fabulous. It’s a light-hearted, fun, sweet movie – and then it just bowls you away in the end. We should all be so brilliant!

  18. This is a really great list! Gone with the Wind (book and film) is another one with a loose ending. A lot of people don’t like the ending because they think it’s unfinished. I love it! I think Margaret Mitchell’s ending is just perfect and there never should’ve been a sequel (and MM should’ve been the only one to write it anyway). Whenever I read Gone with the Wind, I close it feeling completely satisfied that it ended exactly as it should have!

  19. There are some elements of a story that must have a satisfying conclusion, or the story doesn’t feel complete. That said, I like it when lesser elements are left up to the reader.

  20. I’ve read some books that just left a lot of loose ends and I had to go back a few pages just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Can you say disappointed?

    But then there are the books that leave you to your imagination. I love that! Those are the best. By the way, Bourne was one of my favorite movie series and the final movie in the trilogy gave me the exact feeling you described in your post. Of course, I’ve seen the movie many times but each time, I sit in my seat daydreaming of what happens to Jason Bourne.

    Thanks for the great post!

  21. This is an area I’ll be concentrating on soon with edits. I want to get it just right. I usually do leave some loose ends so that even though the characters might not be seen again, the story world goes “on.” My problem right now is the battle scene. I don’t want it to be a let-down. I found a blog on endings recently that I think will help. It mentioned the “high tower surprise” which I have missing from my book right now. So will have to figure that out.

  22. @Laura: I would venture that some people don’t like Gone With the Wind‘s ending, not so much because it leaves loose ends, as because it’s unhappy. Unhappy endings often *feel* like they leave lots of loose ends, simply because we’re used to having everything wrapped up in a nice happy bow.

    @Chris: Absolutely. The story itself – the plot, theme, and character arc – have to be resolved. Loose is one thing; too loose is something else entirely!

    @Melissa: That kind of daydream power is too valuable for authors to miss out on. Having a reader enjoy a book and set it aside never to think about it is good. But having him daydream about the characters long after finishing the story? That’s awesome!

    @Traci: Beta readers are invaluable at helping us figure out when we’ve left too many loose ends or not enough. Sometimes, by the time we get to the end of a manuscript, we’re just too close to it to know which ends we can safely leave untied.

  23. I believe people criticized Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for tying up everything too neatly. Of course, imagine if she left her readers hanging! Pitchforks and torches storming Edinburgh Castle.

    I wonder if it’s more appropriate for certain stories to primarily resolve the inner conflicts of characters, and let smaller plot threads be left open. In my WIP I might be taking this approach, it’ll be interesting to hear what people think of it.

    As you point out, sometimes it can’t be up to us. Others have to let us know if we need a tighter bundle or looser at story’s end.

  24. Endings are difficult to do. In one of my works in progress, which takes place in France during the First World War, a major character is going to die just before the end. Numerous characters will have already died and I’m afraid of leaving readers in a state of depression. I plan on having the end be put off enough so that there will be some ray of hope for the other characters. I hope I can pull it off.

    As for the endings you mentioned in your post, I’ve actually only seen two of the examples. The ending of “Roman Holiday” was inevitable, but every time I watch that movie I wish they could get together. For “The Great Escape” the ending was brilliant. You’re sad for all the men that were killed, happy for the ones that managed to escape, and then inwardly start to smile as Steve McQueen’s character goes to the cooler and starts throwing his baseball against the door.

    On another subject, however, I’m trying to find some good books on writing for a sixteen year old. Do you have any suggestions?

  25. @Christopher: Every story is going to create its own demands. Aside from the ever-important input of others, we just have to follow our gut feeling. How many loose ends does it *feel* like our story can handle while still offering the final emotion with which we want to leave readers?

    @Hanne-col: You may find some of the books on my recommended reading list helpful.

  26. um, the Artful Dodger got transported to Australia. That’s a pretty not closed ending there.

    Also surprised French Lieutenant’s Woman wasn’t up there. The book offers three endings (one a dream sequence fakeout) and leaves the reader to choose, more or less, and the movie offers up a new ending for the actors while selecting one of the book’s endings over the other.

  27. It’s not up there because I haven’t read it. :p But I love the idea of an experiment in multiple endings. Wouldn’t work for every story, of course, but it sounds thought-provoking.

  28. I’m not sure I’d come right out and say the stories are stronger for it, I like (most) movies either way. However, leaving loose ends can add a great element to the story that is powerful in it’s own way for those willing to exercise their imagination in wondering what will happen from there.

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      As always, it depends on the story. There’s an exception to any rule. The important thing to keep in mind is that we don’t want to tie everything off *so* perfectly that it smacks of coincidence and robs readers of the sense that the characters’ lives will continue.

  29. Another story with a great ending is “A Girl I Knew” by JD Salinger. I read it a month ago and I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.

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