We’re back with the last post for our story endings debate. We started on Monday with Lisa Hall-Wilson’s Team Realistic. Tuesday was Melinda Van Lone’s Team Happy Ever After. Wednesday, Marcy Kennedy’s Team Hopeful. Today, I’m offering my views on why I say Make Mine Open.
First, a short recap.
The basic question we began with: How should a good fiction story end? We’ve had a lot of fun talking about this with you. Maybe we should have increased the scope of our topic, though.
Some of our conversations have gone a little sideways, veering into interesting areas beyond exploring our preferred story endings.
Many of you discussed subjects or genres and your preferences. You told us you don’t enjoy brutal war stories, graphic violence, depressing topics, bleak futures, and hopeless lives.
Several of the writers among you wondered whether a particular writing process produces a more or less realistic or hopeful or happy or tragic tale.
A few commenters distinguished literary fiction from genre fiction, making the point that literary fiction is too dreary while genre fiction provides reading pleasure.
You’ve raised my curiosity with these off ramps. I’d enjoy debating them with you, too. Maybe we can take more story issues up soon. I’d like to chat with you about stories you loved and why, too.
One way or another, though, we agree we don’t want a steady diet of the same repetitive story with the same repetitive ending. Variety is important to us, too. Mainly, we’ve identified what we don’t want, named our ideal, and left some wiggle room on the rest.
After everything we’ve said so far, it seems to me that we all agree a good fiction story should end satisfactorily.
Satisfaction is subjective, like Justice Potter Stewart famously declared about pornography. We know satisfaction when we feel it. What satisfies one reader may not satisfy another. Mainly, as in most areas of life, reader and viewer satisfaction results when we get what we wanted.
We choose fiction with the expectation that it will deliver certain emotional experiences. We choose comedy to laugh, tragedy to “have a good cry,” adventure for excitement, horror for thrills, mystery for the puzzle, romance for love, and so on.
So we choose what we want, and when we get what we expected to get, we’re satisfied.
When Melinda expected a comedy, but was blindsided by a funeral in UP, and when Marcy expected a romance, but the hero died unnecessarily in Titanic, they were more than dissatisfied. These movies failed to meet their expectations for the emotional experience they sought. Up denied Melinda the happy ending she likes. Titanic denied Marcy the hopeful ending she prefers. For Melinda and Marcy, these stories failed to deliver what they promised.
Compare that to Lisa’s example. Snow White and the Huntsman exceeded her expectations by delivering a realistic demonstration of leadership rather than a hackneyed hero tale. Lisa was more than satisfied because the movie delivered more than what it promised.
To me, this shows that Realistic, Happy, and Hopeful endings are all desirable. But that doesn’t mean these are the only options, or that they’re mutually exclusive.
Who says we can’t have them all?
Consider the recent film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which stars some of the most accomplished actors of our time. It’s not a perfect movie, but a darn good one. I’ve heard no lament that it failed to satisfy in what it promised to deliver from a single soul.
How does Marigold conclude? Realistically? Yes. Hopefully? Most definitely. Happily? You bet.
But then it does something more, something better. It leaves us with the clear message that life will go on for these people. They will have more joys and triumphs and challenges. The last page is not the end of the story.
Or, as Sunny, the young man with unsinkable optimism, repeatedly puts it, “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.”
“The end” is not the end at all. What’s the rest of the story?
One of yesterday’s comments mentioned Gone With The Wind, which perfectly illustrates my point about story endings.
Perhaps one of the best stories ever written and filmed, GWTW was a brutal war story, containing graphic violence, depressing topics, bleak futures, and hopeless lives.
When Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” was it realistic? Hell, yes.
But what about Happy? Hopeful? You bet.
Did anyone believe those two would remain separated forever? Of course not. They’d separated and reunited countless times during the story already. The book was more than a thousand pages long and the move lasted three hours or more. How many break-ups and reconciliations did we need to see before we understood that they are soul mates? But beyond that, can you name one thing Scarlett O’Hara ever wanted that she didn’t eventually get? Exactly.
Exciting things happen to Scarlett and Rhett in the future. These are interesting characters who do interesting things in an interesting story that hangs together and develops well. They’ve held our interest for more than fifty years. Of course, there’s more to their story.
Life goes on. Stories continue. Cliff hangers, series, sagas, sequels — bring ’em on. I’m looking for good stories, well told. For me, the best stories have realistic, happy, and hopeful endings, whether they happen at the last line of this volume or sometime in the future when we turn the page. What’s the rest of the story?
The Ending Debate: Make Mine Open! How about you?
What happened after your favorite story’s last line? How will everything work out well in the end?
Our 60 minute Twitter Chat Friday afternoon at 5:00 Eastern on #storyendings — Please join us and share more of your thoughts on perfect story endings.
I tend to agree, Diane. My favorite books are the ones that have me wondering what the characters are up to now, days after I’ve finished the book. I never thought about it much before but all my endings have something in them that says, life goes on, and hints at the direction it will take, for at least some of my characters.
The two kinds of endings that I truly dislike are the ones that leave way too many unanswered questions and the hopeless kind. Who wants to be depressed when you put down a book? Guess that’s why I don’t read much literary fiction. lol
The bleakist ending I have in my books is in my most recent release, where most of the main characters are suffering from some degree of post-traumatic stress due to the events in the story, but even there I end on an upbeat, indeed downright joyful, note. Not tellin’ what it is, you all will have to read the book to find out. 🙂
Thanks for a great post, Diane!
Glad you enjoyed the post, Kassandra. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
Meanwhile, I had a similar discussion with some friends at an Oscar party when American Beauty was nominated (and won 5 awards, including Best Picture). I said I thought the movie was depressing. Someone said, “I was an English major. Depressing doesn’t bother me.”
See what I mean? It’s all about the expectations!
I totally get the English major perspective. I never appreciated the value of sad tragic and depressing until university. 😛 lol
😀 Lisa, that’s priceless! I wonder what Louise Behiel would say about the psychological predisposition of you English majors, hmmm??? 😉
Interesting take on the discussion, Diane! Hmmmm. In some ways I don’t mind an open ending. Unless it’s open for more misery ;-). I had a similar feeling after watching Marigold Hotel. It was hopeful and with an end that said they would go on (que sappy Titanic music here) and I know it was supposed to have the hopeful message of “life is not over after you turn 60”. I did, however, leave a bit depressed. Why? Because I was sad that as a society it appears (at least in the movie) that we throw our “old” people away. They aren’t valued or respected and they aren’t expected to contribute in any meaningful way. These people should not have had to move to India in order to live a happy retirement. It made me sad, and it made me wonder at what point that happens. At what point, what age, is the line drawn when you are no longer useful and might as well curl up and die? Am I close to it? When will it happen to me? Yes, I think these things. I’m twisted. lol. But, that said….I would recommend that movie to anyone and encouraged my parents to see it. Because I loved the stories of these people, and I did love the ending. Even if it wasn’t Disney happy, it was….yes, satisfying. It fit my expectations :-). I hate to concede the point but I do believe I agree with you. My expectations made all the difference. Well played, Diane, well played!
OMG!!! You mean you’re coming over to “the dark-er side”??? 😀 WOW!
Actually, Melinda, my memory of what happened with the people in Marigold was that they were not great planners. They’d made financial decisions throughout their lives that left them with less money than they wanted to live on through their retirement. So it wasn’t that they couldn’t stay in England, but that they wanted to have a higher standard of living than what they could now afford. Am I wrong about that?
The reason it makes a difference to the story is that the story people were making a choice — not forced to do something against their will. And they made a choice that they believed would improve their lives. Which did happen — although somewhat differently than they had planned. 🙂
As for Western society’s take on aging — yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi! 🙁
Thanks for the thoughtful comments! This has been fun. And don’t give up on the happy endings!!
Oh no worries there! I will never give up my preference for happy endings :-D. I’ll just concede that sometimes I’ll watch/read something a little, er, less happy. I think you’re right about at least one of the couples, they hadn’t planned well. Or had given money to the kids. Something like that. I probably shouldn’t say more for those who haven’t seen it. Still wonder how close I am to “that age” though. 😉
For what it’s worth, Melinda, most of the folks “of a certain age” who’ve told me they saw this movie absolutely loved it. They liked that the characters retained their independence and continued to live their choices throughout their lives. If you watch it again, (which I might do now that we’re talking about this…) I think each of the characters went to India as a matter of choice — even though some of them felt like they were being shoved in that direction (and she went back home!). 😉
I think you are right on with the part about expectations. When we have our expectations met, we are happy with the ending. There are probably times that I like all the different endings, even sad ones. That would depend on my mood. The other day I watched The Bang Bang Club and I knew it was going to be a tough movie. I also knew it was a true story, so I couldn’t expect hearts and flowers at the end. And I was even ok with it when the hot guy died. Because it was a true story. But if I had not been in the mood for a movie like that, I would have turned it off after two minutes. That is something I think I want to tell Melinda. If you don’t like how a movie is going, you don’t have to keep watching. Even in a theater. I’ve been know to get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of a movie. And I always have a book in my purse, so I won’t be bored. 🙂 I do like endings where I get to decide what happens to the characters after the last page. Is it possible to agree with all of you?
Of course it’s possible to choose “All of the Above,” Emma. Precisely my choice, too! 😀
The key ingredient here besides choice, I believe, is the “good story, well told” bit. When a book or a movie or play manages both of these elements, then it leads us to a satisfactory ending — assuming we’re in the right emotional place to appreciate that ending. At least, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it!! :-\
If I’m in doubt about a movie, I’ll wait and rent it. I have turned movies off halfway through and returned them without finishing. I’ve done the same with books. That doesn’t usually happen since I tend to research before I devote time to anything, but I have done it.
And yes, I think you definitely can vote for all of us 🙂
I agree, Marcy. Not every movie or book is for me (or anyone). We have to exercise some judgement and know our moods and preferences, right? And just because we thought we’d like it when we picked it, doesn’t mean we’re required to carry on until it’s over, either. 😉
I need resolution of some sort in my stories – I need to have the story conclude. The characters can continue on – that’s assumed. I don’t mind cliffhangers…wait for it…if it’s realistic. If it’s a story that’s too big for the movie or book, a snapshot or moment in time, I’m OK with not knowing how everything ends, but I need that feeling of ‘the end’.
I understand, Lisa. I agree that every story must reach a conclusion or it’s not really a story. Aristotle required a story to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and I’m on board for that. What we read in the newspaper, for example, is not a “story” in this sense because those tales don’t have a satisfactory conclusion. They simply report what’s happened so far.
Your point about realistic endings, for me, comes down to whether the story is well told. If it is, then the conclusion seems to flow naturally from the events of the story that precede the final act. But if the story isn’t well told, then the conclusion feels unsatisfactory in part because it doesn’t make sense to us — and is therefore “unrealistic.”
Diane, great discussion. I’ve been percolating on this even more lately after receiving editorial notes on the latest manuscript that in effect said a more hopeful ending would resonate better. And yet, to me, the story was already hopeful. I think for authors, because we already know our stories/characters so intimately (the back story, the future stories to tell) we may assume readers also grasp our intent. It’s a fine line to provide what’s needed in a resolution without hammering the reader over the head so the happy/satisfying/upbeat or whatever ending becomes trite or hackneyed. Your comment about that “extra something” beyond the expected resonated with me. Those are the stories that I want to read again, that I remember, and that I tell others about–you gotta read XYZ story, you won’t believe what happens! Last evening I watched the movie MOTHER AND CHILD (Annette Benning etc) that could have been soooo depressing but instead the unexpected ending proved hopeful. And yes, it pointed to life going on, a future with these characters. Just lovely.
You’re so right, Amy. As a writer, it’s hard to know when you’ve put enough on the page. We learn that with experience and practice, it seems to me. And that’s one of the reasons we need beta readers. We need someone with a fresh perspective to let us know when we nailed it — and when we didn’t.
The “something extra” is elusive, to be sure. But when it’s there, it makes all the difference.
Thanks for the comment!
Sometimes we’re too close to our work and can’t see when we’ve been ‘clear’ about something. It’s clear to us as writers but not the reader. And as Diane says this is when a beta or editor can point out the interruption in the story flow. Sometimes it’s simply a clearer sentence construction rather than a re-write. But then again we don’t want to spoon-feed the reader because that annoys them too. Balance is the key, and get another pov, Amy.
I think the point about expectations is really well made, as is the point about each of us having different ideas about a satisfying ending. There is no right answer when it comes to this debate. We’re all going to like what we like because of who we are 🙂
I’m still solidly in the Hopeful camp, but I tip my hat to your point about leaving things open. I don’t mind that in certain situations–for example, a series where you don’t want to wrap everything up at the end of each book. But when the series ends, I want resolution. I don’t need it wrapped up with a bow because I do like to imagine things after the book ends, but I need to see that some things have gone right, that the big things are finished, and to have that strong sense of hope.
Gone With the Wind is another book/movie that I didn’t like because of the ending (and also because Scarlett seems to only love herself and Tara). I actually did doubt that she and Rhett would ever reconcile. It was too open for me.
After reading this, I feel like I sit somewhere between you and Melinda.
One thing we haven’t talked about much so far, Marcy, is the extent to which, as fiction consumers, we want crystal clear pictures on the page or on the screen. This is where the rubber meets the road in many respects because it’s the very essence of the “show v. tell” debate.
For example, I have a good imagination. I don’t need to see what’s going on in the bedroom to know the couple is having sex. I don’t need to see the blood and guts to know the injuries are there (and painful). I don’t need the bad guys using F word every other word to know how certain segments of the population actually speak. I’m good with the PG-13 version.
But some folks really aren’t. They need to see that the sex happened, and how, and for exactly how long, and in what positions. Others want to see the precise extent of the violence and mayhem. Some feel the characters are not authentically presented without the precise language in the soundtrack. These folks want the X rating.
And the same is true for many of the story elements. When should we, as readers/viewers, be able to figure it out from what we’re shown? And when do we need to be told, for sure, so we know without a doubt?
I felt it was extremely obvious that Scarlett would never give up until she got Rhett back. And I also felt it was plain that he’d return. Why? Because he loved her to the point of insanity — and he’d proved it many times during the course of the film. He’d given her up before. And she’d cajoled him to return again and again. Nothing in the movie suggested this last time was any different to me. But maybe that’s just because I’m a hopeful type??? 😀
You’ve opened a whole other debate 🙂 I’m personally with you on this. I prefer the PG-13 version. I don’t need to hear the A goes into B details or have the gory details of a person’s entrails on the ground. I also find profanity in a book off-putting because it comes across to me as a crutch the author used because they couldn’t find a stronger way to get their point across. I know people who would strongly disagree with me on all those points. I’m also someone who prefers to be given a few key details about a character’s appearance and then have the rest left up to my imagination. I prefer the author doesn’t paint me a full portrait because I like to fill in the gaps with my own perception. For setting, I like a lot of pertinent detail, though, especially sensory detail.
As for Gone With the Wind, perhaps 🙂 I read the book only once and was so put off by the ending that I’ve never picked it up again. Perhaps if I read it now, with more mature eyes, I’d feel differently.
As a writer you might have the imagination to experience sex or violence and I totally get that you do. But I don’t agree that, with certain readers, all they want to see is the whole sex docking procedure at all without feelings – that’s porn. What the reader of a romance (or any story) wants is the emotional intensity of a scene – every single time – and as writers it’s up to us to deliver. It’s not easy and sometimes it might feel to some people it’s gratuitous but what I’d say is that if it’s uncomfortable to write then we’ve hit the spot as writers. Skating over it doesn’t work and the reader doesn’t like it, they pick up on it every single time and they’re vocal. I can’t tell you how many cop-outs I’ve read and it’s such a pity because if the writer would just dig down a little further they’d have a huge hit on their hands and satisfy the reader, in a good way. I’m not ranting, just say’in! Great post!
So, when I read Marcy’s post, I thought “This is where I live. The hopeful ending.”
But reading yours, I realize that this is what I love about a hopeful ending – is the open end. The fact that the reader can walk away and continue to imagine what happens after.
Exactly, Amber! Thanks! So glad to know you’re on my team! 😀
Until I read Diane’s post, I didn’t realize she and I were so close in our points of view. I thought I was going to end up being the one who bridged the gap between Lisa’s realism and Melinda’s happy endings, but I think I might actually be sitting between Melinda and Diane instead.
That’s so funny, Marcy. I was just thinking, “Open endings are the most realistic.” 😉
Fantastic insight here, Diane. I have to agree that most great endings are open-ended beginnings, unless the whole world explodes in the final scene. 😉 There definitely seems to be crossover in the ending debate, with the common denominator being love for great, thought-provoking stories. Thank goodness there’s an audience for most every genre, theme and tale.
Agreed, August. I also think our tastes change in most areas of life over time — including the stories we choose. But that’s another topic for another day. 🙂
You nailed it, Diane! I love it when the characters go on living in my head after ‘the end.’ And I’m willing to follow different routes according to how I set my expectations and subconsciously prepare myself for where I think I’ll be taken. This four-way blog discussion is wonderful! I jumped in late, but reading all the posts and comments is exciting. I’ve tried started things like this with other groups, but leave it to our dynamic WANA peeps to make it really happen. You guys rock!
Thanks, Alicia. Glad you’re enjoying the debate. Maybe the dynamics of this one are a bit more enthusiastic because it started during a Twitter discussion a few weeks ago. Gotta love Twitter for getting things going. But it’s a little too limited for our in-depth discussion. We’ve been having a lot of fun with this.
Great debate Diane! You just can’t take the attorney out of an attorney! LOL! Look for a loophole and your found one! Aha! But I am a cup is half full girl, so I vote for a hopeful, if not happy ending. It is the purpose of reading/watching a great story to escape from our reality. We want to feel good at the end of our 12 hour journey. We root for our MC throughout many pages and we want to see him/her succeed. Even if it is in some small way. Those are books we read over and over again. That said, it doesn’t mean that the story has to end. 🙂
You’re right on so many levels, Karen. I suspect the point of departure is in what August said a couple of comments up this thread about the variety of literary tastes among readers and movie goers. One man’s escapism is another woman’s nightmare — just ask my husband who loves what I call “bug movies” (meaning sci-fi where the creatures look like bugs). He thinks those movies are great entertainment. But me? I want to call the exterminator!
I think you hae hit on the reason why series are so popular in genre fiction. THose family sagas that go on and on over generations (ANyone love Lynn Kerland?) Ditto for Nora Roberts’ trilogies – once we care for characters we want to keep ‘in touch’, even indirectly. well done ladies. lots of food for thought.
Thanks, Louise. This debate has given all of us much to think about. Hope you’ll join us for the Twitter chat tomorrow at 5 pm EDT.
You nailed it, Diane. Our satisfaction with a book really depends on whether it meets or exceeds our expectations. I am fine with some openess and space for my imagination as long as the implication is that their lives have more ups than downs.
That’s why I was irked with the last Harry Potter book because it has an epilogue chapter revealing what happens to many main characters when they grow up. I wanted to have my own ideas about that, thank you very much.
One of the best open endings I’ve read beside Gone With The Wind was in Guy Gavriel Kay’s fantasy novel Tigana. There is a belief that if three men see a creature called riselka, one is blessed, one’s life forks from there and one shall die. And that’s of course what happens in the very end. Left me mighty curious and pondering what happens to who.
Good examples, Reetta. As Lisa and I discussed a few comments back, each story needs a resolution, but that doesn’t mean we’ve heard the final answer. Nor do we want to, I’ll bet!
Wow. I think I just spent more time reading all the comments than I did reading the actual post. LOL. I have to say, I waver back and forth between open and hopeful. Can I pick hopeful with an open ending? I don’t want everything all tied up nice and neat. I always like something left to show life goes on.
Yep, Deb, you can certainly have it your way. Why not?:-D
Great discussion! I have to say that Gone With The Wind annoyed me – Scarlett was a selfish twit. I know a lot of people love that story – has nothing to with the end, I just found her character so annoying I wanted nothing to do with it.
I think another aspect of these open endings is the multiple view points – thinking of Vantage Point for instance. Hotel Rwanda comes to mind also, but may be mistaken on that one. I can’t stand not knowing who the primary character is – who’s going where, doing what – with whom. Those stories have a bunch of realism – but I’m just not a fan of those things. :/
Lisa, I think Scarlett was a spoiled and pampered child and I’m not sure she grew out of that role by the time the movie ended. I always felt a little sorry for her because she had such a rude awakening. 🙂 On the other hand, she could be ruthless when the occasion arose, so she wasn’t especially admirable at times. But she certainly showed how women could be strong and self-reliant and didn’t have to stay inside the stereotypical roles of the time. Margaret Mitchell (this was her one and only book) was a very interesting person herself. Writing a role like this for Scarlett must have been a labor of love for her while Mitchell was wearing the conventional role straitjacket in the 1930s.
The ensemble cast is a favorite of mine, mostly because it’s hard to stay focused on all that self-involvement (some would say narcissism) of one central character taking the stage all the time, especially in a longer book. But even in an ensemble cast, there is usually one central protagonist and one central antagonist. Of course, mystery and thriller series books do this well and almost always. It’s one of the reasons they’re so popular! 😀
What an excellent post, Diane. I missed the others. I like happy, hopeful, and open end. Reading your post, I realize I do find open endings satisfying.
One story that comes to mind is Million Dollar Baby, which is based on a true story, but I didn’t know the true story before I watched the movie. I loved that movie, was so into it, until the end. OMG, I kinda freaked at the ending. I wasn’t expecting it, not at all. And since it’s a true story, I was left feeling not just unsatisfied and disappointed, but really down. I was bummed for days. 🙁
Thanks, Lynn. I so agree on Million Dollar Baby — but even though I love Eastwood and like Swank a lot, I didn’t see this movie. I knew from the previews I wasn’t going to like it. I don’t like boxing movies. I’m probably the only person on the planet who never watched Rocky. 😉
You’re not the only one who never watched Rocky, Diane. Like you, I don’t watch boxing movies. Even though I know it’s only acting, I can’t get any enjoyment from watching two men beat each other nearly senseless.
I am still catching up from being away – looks like I missed some good stuff! – so coming in late here, but I like hopeful/slightly open endings. I read a lot of romance, and it’s common to find endings that are IMO too neatly tied up and pat. I don’t care for the epilogues where the couple is shown a couple years later with picket fence, 2.5 kids, and another on the way. OTOH I really, really don’t like tragic endings even if it’s realistic – I can get enough of that in the news, thanks. I usually leave at least something minor open in my books, and leave a villain an “out” so the series can continue. Hopefully it works! 😀
Early on in the discussion, Jenn, I think someone equated Lisa’s desire for “realistic” to an ending that’s “sad” or “tragic.” I’m not sure that’s what she meant exactly. I suspect she was arguing for an ending that makes sense in the context of the story people and the story world as well as the way we readers know the real world works. So she’d most likely agree with you about the too tidy happy endings. But maybe I misunderstood her? Lisa? Want to weigh in here?
Generally, I enjoy suspense, mystery and thriller. And I like a surprise ending or at least an unpredictable one. In these stories, there’s usually a fairly high body count. I guess some folks would see that as tragic. But the focus of these stories is less on suffering and more on triumph over the forces that move against us.
Glad you could join us and good to have you back!
Good post, Diane. And it underscores the different expectations we each have. Generally, the endings I write are bittersweet, and while the story arc is complete, there are usually elements that leave a question…rather like life. I don’t require that a story answer every question, but instead, I’m intrigued by the possibilities of an open ending. I thoroughly enjoy following characters on further journeys that I imagine myself.