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March 2017

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Open-ended

I've been having an email exchange with someone about "open" endings in books. They can be tricky for readers to accept, since human beings generally like two things in story endings: justice and resolution. But some readers are open to endings that are unhappy, or uncertain, or ambiguous. The world is in short supply of justice and resolution, and while many readers want those things in books as an antidote to that harshness, other readers hunger to see that truth reflected in their literature. They find comfort in the fact that literature can say: Yes, this is difficult; no, it's not fair or right. Or, I don't have all the answers either, but here is what I know to be true.

In the case of an an ambiguous ending, I think it works if the whole rest of the book supports that uncertainty, and if the reader has enough clues to go on with. I think any book should leave some unanswered questions, things for the reader to wonder about, even if all the main questions are answered. But where the main questions are not answered, then the readers should at least receive the tools to build a satisfactory ending for themselves--even if they all build different endings. (The power of being able to tailor the ending to their own ideas is part of the attraction of an ambiguous ending.)

An "open" ending shouldn't drop the reader off a cliff, and shouldn't be based on the writer flinging up her hands and saying, "I've run out of ideas; I don't know what happens next." An open ending should be as carefully planned as any other part of a book.



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Comments

(Anonymous)

I like open endings, but I think an open ending is something that you would tire of if there were too many.
Yes, if every book had this kind of ending it would get tiresome. I like variety.
I don't know if you've watched the movie Inception (don't worry I'm not going to give any spoilers), but the ending was left open, and it's an excellent example of what you are talking about. Great post.
This is what I thought of as well. You have to do open endings just right in order for them not to be annoying, and I think Inception was a perfect example of this.
(Also there are no words for how much I love this movie.)
I realize I have the same taste in movie endings that I do in book endings, and I do appreciate a well-done open ending!
Thanks! I haven't seen Inception--I see very few movies because I spend more time with books--but I think the principles of endings are very similar between movies and books.
I think that open endings are harder to write, you have to write them very carefully so they have sense with the story and even when open you have to leave a good taste in the reader. Difficult!
Yes!
On the other end of the spectrum, it can be hard to write a neat, tied-up ending without it seeming too predictable. So there are probably no easy answers!
M is a big fan of "open" endings, as long as they allow her to project something - for instance, one where it's not certain that two characters really got together, but it was left open as a definite possibility. Or one where there's another shoe left to fall, but it at least seems likely that it will. She doesn't mind that it's not all tied up in the book, as long as she can project a logical resolution.

An open ending that doesn't point to a resolution, however, turns a book into a throwing book. So an ending where you can assume that the characters did get together, but can equally say that they did not, but it's okay is fine. One where you have no real clue what might happen is not.
Yeah, a good open ending feels like food for thought, while a bad open ending feels like the writer gave up.
I just finished Sarah Waters' THE LITTLE STRANGER. Wow. I don't want to say too much in case you want to read it, but your post resonated with me because of that book.
I haven't read it but will keep it in mind! Thanks.
I'm a big fan of open endings, but there has to be some kind of resolution to smaller plot threads if an author is to leave a major one open - sort of like hitting a balance between mystery and resolution. Like you said to a commenter above, variety is nice, and open endings don't always work (and sometimes, you're just not in the mood for them!).

Also, occasionally an open ending, done in the right way, can hint at possible sequels. :)
My least favorite kind of open ending is when it seems to be done *solely* to set up for a sequel. I feel cheated and manipulated.

Which doesn't mean that there can't be loose threads and open questions at the end of a series book. This can be done very effectively. But a cliffhanger is a delicate thing to pull off.
If it's too obvious, then yeah, I agree - it's a cheap tactic. But if there are hints that a sequel might, possibly one day happen, that can be rather exciting (depending on the book and story). :)
I tend to prefer novels that wrap up the main story they're telling, but leave other plot threads open to be explored in sequels, etc. I try to write that way as well. Open-ended novels are one thing, but I find it frustrating when a novel isn't complete in itself and is just setting things up for a sequel or series.
Yes. There are plenty of good books that were originally written as stand-alones, but then the author wrote a sequel later.

I thought NEED (by Carrie Jones) worked very well--you could see openings for the story continue, but she had enough resolution of the first book's issues that it didn't feel unfinished.