are the loose ends in your story too loose

Are the Loose Ends in Your Story Too Loose?

Are loose ends in your story a good thing or a bad thing? The very name seems to indicate they’re a bad thing. After all, what else do we do with loose ends but tie them up? But the problem with tying up all our loose ends too tightly is that we often end up with a story that’s just too pat and perfect. Readers like just enough loose ends so that they’re able to feel the story and its characters live on even after they’ve closed the back cover. You want them thinking, “I wonder…” You do not want them thinking, “Huh?!”

Consider two wildly different examples. The Japanese animated feature Porco Rosso, about a WWI pilot cursed to looked like a pig, never answers its story most salient question: “Does he break the curse?” At first glance, that may seem like far too great a loose end to leave untied, but in this story, it works. Why? Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter to the story or the character’s arc whether or not he breaks the curse. Viewers are left to speculate why he was cursed and whether his actions at the end of the movie were enough to free him—but, however each person chooses to answer those questions, the story still works, and its message is all the stronger for its leading ambiguity.

Contrast that with classic American author Nathaniel Hawthorne’s little known novel The Marble Faun. This is one of my favorite of Hawthorne’s books. It’s beautiful, intense, lyrical, and thought-provoking. Its main problem—and the only good reason it remains in obscurity—is that Hawthorne failed to provide solid answers for the two main mysteries that drive the plot. So many readers were confused by the book’s complete lack of explanation that Hawthorne eventually (and grudgingly) had to write an afterword that flat-out explained the plot twists.

So how do you know whether the loose ends in your story should be left in ambiguity or explained outright? First, ask yourself if you’ve tied off all the major plot details. Is the conflict’s resolution clear? Is the character’s mindset (whether it’s changed or remained the same) clear at the end? Will readers understand where the character is headed next?

Second, ask yourself if you’ve answered (or at least hinted at the answer to) any salient questions you’ve hooked readers with throughout the book. If you’ve teased them for three-hundred pages, you have to play fair in the end and give them at least a partial answer.

Finally, run your ending by some beta readers. If they enjoy any remaining ambiguity, you’ve done a good job. But if they look at you and say, “Huh?”—you know what to do!

Tell me your opinion: What loose ends in your story will you leave at the end?

are the loose ends in your story too loose copy

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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. Lizzywriter says:

    Thanks for this insightful piece of information! It was very helpful for me, as I’m now trying to figure out my ending to a novel. I have been following your blog for a few days, and have been reading through the archives. Thank you for writing this blog! (It’s the only one I go to now.) 😀
    Thanks again-
    Lizzywriter

  2. Steve Mathisen says:

    This article reminds me of a conversation I had with another one of your readers about the ending of Dreamlander. We thought that the unresolved questions you left provided enough room for a sequel. (I will leave the details out so as not to spoil the ending for someone who has yet to read that excellent book.)

    You left the characters alive enough for us to wonder what might happen next and yet the story had a definite and satisfactory ending.

    You pulled it off well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thank you! You never know about a sequel. It’s definitely in the back of mind, although I don’t have any definite plans right now.

      • Lorna G. Poston says:

        Whether or not you do a sequel to Dreamlander, the ending was perfect. It allows the book to stand alone, which I like. What drives me nuts are books in which the author plans in advance for a sequel and leaves Book 1 with a major cliffhanger. Then, I’m forced to wait a year or more for Book 2 while trying to remember all the details of Book 1 so I can dive into Book 2 when it comes out. More often than not though, it frustrates me enough that I send Book 1 to Goodwill and leave the rest of the books in the series unread.

        Sequel or not, tie up major loose ends, please. Makes for happier readers. Just sayin’. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That drives me nuts too. I love it when I’m able to start a series after all the books have been published, so I don’t have to wait.

  3. I’m going to leave my hero’s love life in question. The woman who betrayed him (so he thought) is still out there somewhere. He discovers that he still harbors feelings for her, even though she supposedly framed him for the economic collapse of an entire nation and murder. My story will end with her true loyalties undefined. But that’s why there’s a book 2.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Subplots are often a good choice for loose ends. Readers know the protagonist got his major problems figured out, but they don’t always have to know exactly how the lessons he’s learned in the story will affect the rest of his life.

  4. Siegmar Sondermann says:

    Hi,

    as I am still a beginner, the decision about what loose ends to leave at the end of a story is too tough a choice for me.
    I usually go by gut feeling, tie up the main plot and for the rest rely on my beta reader.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Gut feelings are the best place to start. Leave loose what feels right – then listen if beta readers disagree.

  5. Although I tend to like books that stand alone, but even then, I like room for a sequel just for the sake of “What if?” The story I’m researching will be pretty well tied up, but even so I hope the ending gives at least a minor sense of continuation, and I hope to subtly explain the main meaning of the story with recurring lines and symbols, while leaving other stuff left for interpretation. In regards to Dreamlander, if you do come up with a good sequel idea in the future great, but otherwise I think it’s smart for you not to bet on it too much since I thought it was an excellent ending as well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks! I appreciate that. At this point, I have a lot of other storyworlds I want to explore first – so a Dreamlander sequel would years in the future if it ever came to be.

  6. This an important point I’ve never heard discussed before. I try hard to deliver resolutions to my plot points, but I didn’t realize tying all of them would make it too perfect. I’ll have to examine this and leave some in.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If nothing else, we just need to indicate that our protagonists have new goals that will carry them on in their lives after the story proper has ended.

  7. Ah yes, this was a subject of debate when my critique group discussed my most recent book. I left readers hanging as to whether the antagonist was captured, died, or ultimately escaped, intending to use that detail to begin the next book.

    I think this is an especially tricky question when writing a series. Ideally, each book needs its own story arc, but with just enough questions remaining that they’ll pick up the next! I hate reading a title in a series that leaves *major* plot points unresolved, but when writing your own book, how do you define *major*? I suppose you have to trust those beta readers and critique groups!

    Great post 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re right. Series are a whole ‘nother ball of wax when it comes to loose ends, since, technically, the ends aren’t really loose if they’re tied off in a subsequent book. Still, readers do get a wee bit hot under the collar when they have to wait three years to have their major questions answered!

  8. Interesting food for thought. I am always tied up with even getting to the middle before I run out of juice to get to the ends to tie up, but this is a good thing to remember if I ever make it to the end of a novel.

    My short stories aren’t quite as loose ended, but maybe that might be a problem too.

    I will admit, this gets the gears spinning. Thanks K.M., much appreciated!

  9. Katie–
    Thanks for bringing this up. I consider it important, deceptively so, and a matter with special relevance to me as someone writing a series. The key, I think, lies in the question you suggest posing: “Ask yourself if you’ve tied off all the major plot details.” This is a must. The plot needs to be resolved by story’s end–unless of course it’s part of a “to be continued” saga. But that doesn’t mean wasting the chance to lodge intriguing questions in the reader’s mind at story’s end. The first novel in my Brenda Contay series, The Anything Goes Girl, ends with all major plot elements resolved. But: a killer who has actually come to the aid of my main character is still out there. When Brenda gets a mailer with no return address, she knows immediately who it’s from, and (I hope) readers are left to wonder what comes next. The second novel, due out soon, will also end with plot elements finished, but also with lingering questions about whether a romance almost destroyed in the course of the novel has a chance of being saved.
    Thanks again for getting us thinking about this.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I vividly remember a deliberate loose end left by Orson Scott Card in his Ender’s Shadow series. I didn’t even realize he’d left the loose end, until one night, a few nights after finishing the series, I sat straight up in bed and yelled, “What about Bean’s other baby?!” It was a question that got answered in a later sequel.

  10. This is something I’ve been wrestling with especially as I started writing a sequel for my first WIP Adelphi, when I realised as I wrote it it was going to take more than one book to write the story – and ended up with three. I added a plot to each book which does get resolved at the end of each book to give a sense of completion – while keeping other threads unresolved (niggling questions rather than major cliff hangers) – that lead on to the next book. It’s been fun to write but takes a lot of thinking.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, don’t become a writer if you don’t want to use the ol’ brain. Sounds like you did everything right with your series.

  11. I just discovered this site which is very Zhong-ish:
    http://www.sixwordmemoirs.com
    Fun to play around with.
    -Dana

  12. Beth Dewhurst says:

    I am in love with this website! I have started a dozen stories and only finished one, though I am considering going back to rewrite it after readong several of your articles. Now I am ready to combine and finish my stories, since it is much easier to find the answer to the problems that stumped me 🙂
    Thank you SO much for putting into words the gut feelings I had, and for explaining and opening the possibilities 🙂

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