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The art of leaving things not all wrapped up

25 March 2012

From Edittorrent:

I was contemplating how to make a happy ending of this romance novella, and of course, this being a romance novella, the young couple end up together and happy. But what about the other conflicts?

Does a happy ending mean everything is all wrapped up in the ending? That the conflicts presented at the beginning of the story are all resolved happily?

I’m thinking no.  Much of the “contrivance” and “deus ex machina” that annoy us as readers will come from trying to resolve every conflict happily.

Link to the rest at Edittorrent

Fiction Fundamentals

9 Comments to “The art of leaving things not all wrapped up”

  1. Life itself certainly comes with its ragged edges and loose ends. There’s a traditional Sufi tale, “The Story of Mushkil Gusha” which deliberately doesn’t neatly tie everything up in fancy wrapping, and we simply read things like “… but he leaves our story here.”

  2. That was a great little post. I think romance is especially prone to the thinking that HEA/HFN (happily ever after/happily for now) requires every last plot thread to be tied up into a bow. It gets worse if you see characters of one story show up later as minor characters in another (usually a friend or sibling) because they all have perfect 2.5 children, she hasn’t gained a pound, and they still have mind-blowing sex every night. You know, like one does in real life.

    I think her point (not sure if you quoted it, too lazy to scroll back up and look) about a fortuitous event solving one character’s problem undermining the choice of the other character is spot-on. Such as the poor hero whom the heroine chooses in spite of his lack of prospects suddenly becoming enriched, not by one of his own efforts or investments paying off sooner than he thought but by…the death of a relative or something. I’ve seen more than once a man who was supposedly a bastard son magically turn out to be the true heir when a deathbed marriage was revealed. It ruins a perfectly good story, otherwise, because it’s not realistic.

    My take on Fortuitous Events happening–because they DO sometimes in the real world–is that it needs to be early in the plot, an inciting incident or an early complication. Then the story is about how the character deals with that sudden change in fortune…the happiness of the characters does not require an unlikely change in fortune (which then makes it unrealistic and therefore less satisfying).

  3. I totally agree! Realistic fiction over candy-coated fiction any day; even in stories with the mandatory HEA/HFN. Too much sugar rots your teeth.

  4. One of my novellas, I leave the hero and heroine on the *cusp* of courtship, letting the reader imagine their way to the obvious HEA. Of course, one reviewer didn’t like that much, and wished the story was longer, but there will always be people who want their packages neatly tied up. ;)

    • I tried to end a book with what, to me, wrapped up matters pretty well — if not with a happy-ending right then. The groundwork was laid! It was obvious. To me. Everyone demanded that it needed a sequel. >_> (And then one subsequent reader threatened to chase me around with sticks if there wasn’t a sequel. By that time, happily, I was able to point out that it did say “Book One” in the file, and here was the Book Two file, and she relented.)

  5. I’ve got to say I get antsy when people start talking about “open” endings. As far as the life/reality isn’t neat and tidy, well, that’s irrelevant. Fiction is supposed to make sense out of things, coincidences and other things which happen in real life aren’t always acceptable in fiction, the reader just won’t buy them. They come off as the writer being lazy. The same applies to endings.

    I think in general endings are a very neglected part of storytelling when it comes to analysis and writing advice. And there are a lot of good writers who routinely turn out lackluster endings. However, there seems to be a sort of blind acceptance of the idea that not wrapping things up, that leaving things open-ended is more “artistic” somehow. Like other pieces of trite writing advice, “write what you know”, “show don’t tell”, “don’t use passive voice”, and the like, they are tossed about without any actual thought, and there’s a danger to actually accepting them blindly.

    You don’t want to leave the reader uncertain as to whether you left some subplot or issue unresolved on purpose or just forgot about it, and the type of ending: happy, sad, mixed, open, or wrapped up in a bow, needs to suit the genre and tone of the story to be satisfying.

  6. This is also, very much a cultural issue. In Japan, for instance they absolutely adore open endings where little to nothing is resolved or resolutions are ambiguous. Not everything they make is like that, but there’s still a significantly higher percentage than in western culture. I think it really comes down to the unspoken pact between a reader and a writer. If I’m reading or writing a certain type of story I have an expectation of a certain amount of “ending”

    The more epic a tale is the more I expect some serious resolution. the more mundane the story is (slice of life for example) the less resolution I expect because I understand that “life goes on” If I’m reading a stand alone novel I expect more resolution than in a serial piece, because one stops and the other continues so there need to be open threads and hooks. If I’m reading a science fiction piece I don’t expect as much resolution to the central problem as I do if I’m reading a murder mystery.

    And even if a story is left “open” there still needs to be a sense of closure. If I have a murder mystery and the police figure out who the villain is, but they manage to escape to South America, I’ve still got some closure there. We know who did it. They might not have been caught, but the implication is that if they ever come back they’ll get their due. But if at the end of the book the cops are still just as confused as they were at the beginning… and so is the reader… The compact has been broken and the reader won’t be satisfied.

  7. Most certainly different genres require different amounts of resolution on their stories. I think by and large, a good rule is that most people expect the main plot, and most sub-plots, to resolve in one form or another. If the type of story is a “slice of life,” that plot is different from your standard space opera/adventure tale. But that plot, getting a theme or point across in experiencing something interesting, still needs to be resolved (something interesting is conveyed, whether beauty, or even everything is random, etc.)

    But I think we’re talking two different things here. Whether a plot line resolves is one issue, whether it resolves “happily” is another. I don’t think most readers expect every plot line to resolve in a happy way, though in most genres, they expect the main one and maybe most of the sub-plots to do so. I think it tends to make the “happy” ending more realistic if there’s been some sacrifice and loss associated with getting there.

    The movie “Vanishing Point” (70s) is a good example. It resolves at the end, but not as expected. And you leave the theater depressed. A sense of pointlessness about it all.

  8. I have had mixed reviews on the ending of my second book. The plot was resolved and there were no threads left dangling, but the main character wasn’t happy at the end. I guess that made it feel unfinished, but I just couldn’t see that character being even content, let alone happy with all he had gone through. I suppose I could have added an epilogue, but I’m not a big fan of those.

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