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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