Are loose ends in a story ok?

Does every story need to be neatly tied up with every loose end accounted for? In her blog ‘Loose ends in a story’, KM Weiland talks about this and it makes very good reading.

It also set me to thinking about my own storytelling. The serials have taught me to write more open ended stories. As I pondered the question of whether all stories need to be neatly tied up, I realised they do not. Life does not come in neatly tied packages, so why should stories?

It is sometimes satisfying to read a story and to have to think about how it might end.

If art truly imitates life, then we would always have open-ended stories. Nothing in life happens in isolation. There are peaks and troughs, but there is always history leading up to the event and there is always an aftermath of some description. Loose ends allow the writer to reflect that reality. Even if someone dies, there are those whose stories continue and the person’s death will influence whatever unfolds after he or she has gone.

So loose ends are okay. But some loose ends are better than others.

There is nothing more jarring for a reader than to have a story suddenly stop without a conclusion of some kind. When a story stops suddenly, it feels as if the writer ran out of ideas or perhaps he or she had a deadline to meet so just ended the story.

Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code ends abruptly. It was the first Dan Brown novel I had read and I was not familiar with his format, so I became easily hooked into the twists and puzzle solving. However, half way through I began to wonder how he would convincingly end the novel. In her review of The Da Vinci Code, bestseller reviewer Erin Collazo Miller states the ending was disappointing and I would agree. It felt as if Brown had written himself into a corner and was unsure how to get out of it. So, he just finished the story with his characters in Scotland, mystery unsolved.

This kind of hanging end is disappointing for the reader because too much of the plot hangs on the reader discovering the answer to all the clues planted throughout the novel. Today I posted a chapter by Greg Rochlin for our serial, Cut Away Pass.  It also has an open ending. The main character is at the bottom of a crevasse and the reader decides his fate. However, because this story has included a number of accidents and the terrain is dangerous, the reader is not surprised that someone ends up in this situation and, depending on how we feel about Ray, the reader can end the story his or her own way.

The other argument for open-ended endings is that the writer acknowledges that there are too many complexities for there to be one ending. This point is made on the Scratchpad  of a website called Learning and Creativity. The writer quotes Chekov’s ‘The Lady with the Dog’. Here we leave the story with the ambiguous situation of a couple knowing they must part but may or may not.

The important thing about endings is that they must leave the reader with a sense of satisfaction, a feeling of, ‘oh, I like the way that ended’. It must feel like a natural conclusion and not forced.

I, personally, do like to tie up the ends and leave the reader with something to think about so I have not written very many open ended stories. I think that is more do with my personality than anything. While some people are comfortable with starting projects and never finishing them, I like to finish everything I start and am very deadline driven.

story endings