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.
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.
- Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (still worth reading)
- ABC’s Lost (or so I hear)
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
- Avi’s Crispin (my original review which was 10% too harsh, but 90% dead on)
- Christopher Nolan’s Inception (unless we interpret it this way)
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.
- 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?