As a reader, the ending of a book can make or break it. If I’m on the fence about how I much I like a book and it has a fabulous ending, it can change my so-so feelings into love. But if I like a book and the ending doesn’t work, for whatever reason, it can turn my like into hurl-across-the-room sorts of feelings.
While I am a fan of happy endings and definitely prefer them, a happy ending isn’t always the best fit for a book. There are definitely times when things go wrong, the hero doesn’t get the girl, or whatever. But there are a few types of endings that tend to ruin a book for me more than most. Now, I’m not saying that these types of endings can’t be used, but they should be used with caution and intention, knowing exactly what type of reaction you want to get from readers.
Cliffhangers are the type of ending where a main character gets into some sort of peril, whether it is physical or emotional, and then the book ends, leaving the character “hanging.” Often this peril is some new problem that arises after the main conflict of the story has been resolved and I feel like this has been showing up more and more, especially with series.
While cliffhangers are often a great way to end chapters, they tend to be problematic and very annoying for readers. Especially in books for children. So many times my kids have come to me distraught because a book that they love has ended like this and now they have to wait approximately 10% of their life just to find out what happens. A year can a really, really long time when you’re 7 or 10 or 14 (or even 42). In a year, middle grade and young adult aged readers might not even care about those kind of books anymore. Children grow so quickly that in a year when the sequel comes out, they’re hardly the same person anymore.
This is my term for an ending where the main character has a task to achieve. S/he knows the consequences of failure and has plotted and planned and worked to succeed…but when it comes down to it, s/he fails. And then the book ends. This is different from a cliffhanger because the cliffhanger raises new dramatic questions. The failure ending doesn’t. The hero knows the consequences of failure, and so does the reader. This tends to be an extremely frustrating ending for readers.
Of course, having characters fail is sometimes necessary for in the overarching plot of a series. In that case, what’s best to do is look at the example of The Empire Strikes Back. The characters fail there. Han is trapped in carbonite, Luke has just lost his hand, and they’re all on the run. Things look pretty bleak for them.
But. The show doesn’t end with Vader telling Luke the truth. It doesn’t end with Luke falling or hanging from the bottom of Cloud City. It ends with Leia and the others rescuing Luke, giving him a new prosthetic hand, and all of them safe enough, at least for the moment, so they can plan to attack again. This is a much more satisfying ending than if the movie had simply ended with Luke losing the fight with Vader or hanging for his life.
The Ambiguous and Open-ended
This is the type of ending where things are resolved…sort of…and there’s an ending…sort of. But it’s often confusing and things are only partially resolved. There are still lots of questions in readers’ minds, though, and they are left with a general feeling of dissatisfaction at the way it ended. This type of ending doesn’t usually lead readers to hurl the book across the room, but it doesn’t leave them happy either, and often the question foremost in their mind is, “What was the point of that?”
Readers tend to like resolution to stories and justice being served for the good and bad alike (especially children), and this sort of ambiguous ending can be frustrating. There are times when a writer might want to have this type of ending, but they should do so deliberately and make sure to beta-test it with others to see that they are getting the response that they want.
What about you? What kind of ending are the most frustrating for you? What kind of endings do you like the most?
Jenilyn Collings loves to read and write things that are humorous or romantic (preferably both). She has worked as a dental researcher, a florist, a martial arts instructor, and a tracker at an alternative high school (she’ll leave it to your imagination what that entailed), but she’s now focused on writing and child wrangling. A long time resident of the Mountain West, she recently moved to New England with her family where she is gaining an appreciation for umbrellas, fall colors, and turning lanes while driving.