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!