4 ways to betray your readers (and I’m not moving to Germany)

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Side note: I hope Monday’s joke didn’t cause any serious distress. I didn’t mean for it to. Please have a chuckle over what happened last time April 1 fell on a posting day.

Photo by Kelsey

Photo by Kelsey

The beginning of every book is a promise for the end. Every fear mentioned in the first chapter must be faced by the last. Every problem introduced must eventually be solved. Every question must be answered.

It’s an unspoken contract between the writer and the reader.* You promise closure, answers, victory, in exchange for which your readers agree to keep reading. Fail to keep your promise, and you will have robbed them of their time, and left them with an empty feeling.

Here are some ways to do it (or, more accurately, four endings to avoid).

1. Build a mystery you never solve

The plot thickens until it’s practically a solid. You add clue after clue, but the reader never seems to actually get closer to the solution. They expect to find the answer at the end, but you don’t give it to them. You’re good at building suspense, but it’s all random – none of it actually ties together. So you make up a ridiculous half-explanation, that doesn’t offer the “aha!” moment your readers were counting on.

Examples:

2. End it just before the hero succeeds (or fails)

The hero has been striving for something throughout the entire story. Your readers ride the ups and downs with him, watching him overcome every obstacle, until—

That’s it. You’re not even going to finish the

Examples:

3. Have an awesome hero make the wrong ultimate decision

The hero always has to make an ultimate decision, which has a moral component, around the climax of the book. If the hero makes the right one (even if he loses something to the villain in the process), your readers feel a sense of victory. If he makes the wrong decision, you leave them with a sense of hopelessness.

Example:

  • Mockingjay (though more than one person I’ve talked to interprets the ending differently, I don’t see the logic of it, sadly)

4. Kill the hero for no good reason

You’re probably tired of me harping on Nicholas Sparks by now, so this is all I’ll say.

Have you written anything like these four endings? What endings have left you feeling betrayed?

* This does not apply to flash fiction.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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10 Comments

  1. I’m sorry, I can’t take any of this in, I’m busy trying to remember Inception well enough to fully understand that link. Dash it, Steph, now I’m going to have to watch it again and it’s ALL YOUR FAULT.

  2. And here I thought I’d avoided getting fooled this year. Guess I’m still gullible! Glad you are staying around. 🙂

  3. I believe I’m guilty of number one. It was only a short story (which I was having a ball writing), but I did a silly, silly thing — I started writing it before I had even decided how it was going to end. 😛

    Ah well. At least it was only a 3,000 word story, rather than an entire novel or television series. (Yes, Lost, looking at you.)

    Great post. 🙂

    • Thanks! It isn’t as big a deal in a short story as in a novel, of course. In fact I think some shorts SHOULD have mysterious cliffhanger endings.

  4. Hrmmm… I actually liked the open-ending of of Inception. There are some stories, just a few, where an open ending that allows the viewer/reader to decide how it ends, or carry if forward, is the right ending (or at least one that works).

    I agree with the rest of your points, though.

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