Behind the scenes, we wenches have animated discussions, and
after reading a particularly disappointing book, one of us brought up
this topic. "Do you want all your endings to be satisfying? Or can you
handle an ambiguous ending as Gone, Girl? What makes for a satisfying
Mary Jo: A lot depends on what kind of book it is. For a romance, I want my happy ending! I want the characters to have made a commitment, and I want to believe that they are right for each other and they have enough love and ability to deal with life’s challenges that they’ll be together “till death do they part.”
“Satisfying” is a different measure. “Happily ever after” is what make romances end satisfactorily, but other genres, such as mystery and science fiction and fantasy and women’s fiction, are different.
In epic fantasy, for example, “satisfying” means the triumph of good over evil. Harry Potter defeats Lord Voldemort and loses some cherished friends in the process, but good wins. (And Harry does get his girl. <G>)
In mystery, “satisfying” usually means justice is done. This is why Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express ends in a satisfying way: no murderer is arrested, but justice has most certainly been done.
For some books, an open-ended sense of possibility is a satisfying ending. This is not uncommon in women’s fiction, where the heroine has rebuilt her life and good things lie ahead. But I really, really do not like books that just sort of end, with no sense of resolution. We have real life for that!
As a general rule I don’t find ambiguous endings satisfying in fiction. I know there are arguments in favour of ambiguity; that it allows the reader to make up their own ending. Although I think I have a vivid imagination I don’t usually want to do this with other authors’ books.
If I am reading a crime novel I want justice to be meted out. If I am reading a romance I absolutely want a happy ever after. I have run into trouble with thrillers where the ending is either left open or it heads off in a direction where I feel the issues have not been resolved. I remember getting to the end of Fatherland, a gripping thriller by Robert Harris, reading the last line and thinking: “And? What happens next?” I need closure!
I'm all for satisfying story endings, and happy satisfaction in romance in particular — if it makes me smile or brings a tear, I'm a happy reader indeed. And I'm fine with a story ending that is not the normal happiest of endings if it's open-ended, or a bit unsettling, as long as it intrigues and doesn't flat-out disappoint or disturb. If it leads me to another book (as in The Hunger Games, for example), that's great. If it's a single book with an ending that abandons me or leaves me feeling down, I'm not only disappointed in the story and sometimes the author — I may even feel compelled to make up my own ending in my head, and gain a little sense of closure that way.
Emotional closure, a satisfying arc of events and character growth, is so important when I'm reading that last paragraph, that last sentence. No matter the book and its genre, I need some sort of emotional reward for the investment of my feelings, my trust, my time and the immersion of my imagination. Endings differ from one genre to another, and I'm not keen on predictability–certainly it doesn't work in mystery, where we need a bit of a surprise or the satisfaction of I-knew-it! in the last couple of chapters. And we can't always predict the consequences and outcome in a fantasy novel, nor would I want to do that, as it would lose a lot of momentum for me if I saw it coming. Romances always have, in their way, predictable endings, so the delight and fascination of surprise rests in the characters and the story. An emotionally satisfying ending in romance is being able to share in that expansive sense of love and well-being. Though if that romance ending is a bit too sentimental for me, if it's too sweet, I'm not as happy. I like a little tartness with a sweet ending.
To satisfy me, the ending of a book must be clear— no deliberate ambiguity. I say deliberate, because endings are sometimes open to interpretation, and that may not be a disaster for me as long as I can interpret an ending I want. The ending I want will almost certainly be triumphant— that is, the protagonist or protagonists win the battle at the end of the journey I've made with them in reading the story.
That's why I write popular fiction, and why I read it. In romance, I want the couple together and heading into a delightful future that I can believe. Not a last minute fix that uses "I love you" and lust to paper over the cracks. I am not mellow or forgiving with authors who fail me on this.
On a more subtle level, I like an ending to have the right "mass." Sometimes the ingredients are there but they're too quick; sometimes it's spread out too thin. It's not easy writing endings and it's scary how easy it is to weaken or even ruin a book with the wrong one.
I cut my teeth on the likes of Zane Grey, where the hero often rode off into the sunset with his horse, leaving the girl
behind. At age nine, that suited me. By age twelve, I’d become an avid connoisseur of Agatha Christie, until I realized she wasn’t fair with the reader. She’d pull clues out of the hat at the end that the reader couldn’t possibly know. Even at that tender age, I knew she was making it easier on herself but cheating me as a reader. I was quite content with her books until then.
So a “satisfying ending” is often determined by the reader’s experience. I’m perfectly happy reading literary novels that I know won’t end happily. I’m capable of predicting which way the author will take the story, and I enjoy it more if the ending takes a shocking twist. I like the unexpected. Some people don’t. “Satisfying” is in the eye of the beholder.
But genre fiction brings with it certain expectations, and as a reader, I trust the author to meet them. If a romance matches a different man than I expected to the female lead, as MJ says, I want to know they’ll be happy together. If a mystery ends up with no murderer being brought to justice, I want to know that justice has been served in some manner. If the author murders the romantic heroine at the end, I’ll never ever read her again.
In general, leaving the finish of a book all open and unresolved isn't, for me, a satisfying ending but a frustrating one. I know unresolved endings are supposed to be more "lifelike" but I don't read fiction for a lifelike experience — I have life and the news for that. I want to read a book that leaves me feeling good instead of gutted.
Loose threads for me are as undesirable in fiction as they are on a brand new garment. I like my couples paired off in such a way that I know they're going to be happy, I want the pregnant woman to have a healthy baby, I like my murderers caught and for justice to be done, I want the bully to get their comeuppance, the mean trickster to get the tables turned on them, I want the plucky orphan kid to end up in a good place, the lost dog to be found, and so on.
I don't mind if it's a series, and I'll find out some of these things in the next book, but in general, if I've invested in a set of characters and a story and a world, I like to feel as though I know how it ends, even if it's the fairy tale "and they all lived happily ever after."
A lot of books end ambiguously. I do not find this emotionally satisfying, but I go along, respecting the author's intentions, y'know, and I nod at the end and try to feel somewhat wiser and generally don't succeed. It is rather like eating cooked spinach and tofu in this regard. One feels vaguely virtuous and healthier but not particularly enthralled by the meal.
I've always felt Real Life contains a plenitude of puzzlement and uncertainty. If I came up short in that department, I could read popular articles on quantum physics and get uneasy about the very reality of Reality. How much more ambiguity does one need?
I want the murderer revealed at the end of the Mystery. I want something bad to happen to the villain, generally. If an Elf, a Dwarf, a Wizard, a Thief, and the Young Hero set out on a quest — by golly, I want the Magic Whatzit of Garwash discovered at the end and the Evil Usurping King overthrown.
And in Romance — nothing, nothing, nothing replaces the joy of a Happy Ever After for me. That's my payoff. That's why I read Romance and why Romance is my own true love in books.
A Romance without a conclusive, unambiguous Happy Ending would be … if I may misquote and misuse Donne here . . . "Whoever writes Romance, if she do not propose the right true end of the love story, she's one that goes to sea for nothing but to make her sick."
A Romance without that promise of a simple happy future is like decaf coffee. I mean — what's the point?