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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Writing Question: Satisfactory Book Endings

I've read a couple books over the past week--a true treat. I'm not going to give away titles, to respect the authors. This discussion is all about what makes a satisfactory book ending.

Book 1, a fantasy, overall was a good book. The story was quite clever, and I had a hard time putting it down. Until...it occurred to me, a couple times after the 3/4 point that this novel was going to continue in another book. Perhaps I should have assumed "series" since this is a fantasy novel; however, it bothered me the writer was setting me up for a second book when I wasn't finished with Book 1 yet. The ending was okay, and would have been so much better if plot threads were tied up.

Book 2, a historical fiction novel, had such a satisfying ending, it took me by surprise there would be a continuation of the story. Don't get me wrong. I'm looking forward to finding out what happens to the characters in the next book--I already have an idea of the story that needs to be told next; however, the author did such a beautiful job with plot and character arc, the novel was fine--as is. The story...the ending was perfect. Not a happily-ever-after ending. Not a dismal ending. Simply a courageous, realistic ending that worked so well for this time period.

This all makes me wonder, what do you think makes a satisfactory book ending--in a stand-alone book? in a book series? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Christine M said...

A satisfactory ending? Whether in a stand-alone or a series I want the major plot points wrapped up. I recently read the first book in a new series and almost all of the plot points were left hanging by the end. I felt cheated out of an ending.

Now obviously for a series it might be necessary to leave something open in order to entice the reader - but to my way of thinking it should be a fairly minor plot point that can now blossom into the major story in the next book.

And I think I know what the second book you're talking about is. I'll e-mail you.

Jim Danielson said...

I pretty much agree with Chris that major plot lines need to be wrapped up. The one thing I would add is that I like for the reader to be able to imagine where the characters lives may continue on -- with a new plot line. In a series, I don't like the feeling that book 2 starts 75 pages from the end of book 1. In fact I'll carry that further, book 2 should stand alone (although it might be slightly easier if you read #1 first).

Years ago, I read HP#2 before #1 and had no problem for example. Now reading HP#7 first would likely be a stretch. :-)

Oh, and one thing that makes me crazy is getting to the end of a book and being told everything that just occurred happened because it was prophesy -- that just disenpowers the characters (and yes I'm thinking of a certain book which I out of respect to the well known author will not name)

Steph Su said...

I definitely agree that series starters shouldn't be completely an exposition for the remaining books, but rather have quality and a story of its own. Sadly, more and more books I've been reading lately are doing exactly that with their first books, which makes me wonder: how long will this trend continue? How long are people going to be patient through the painstakingly slow buildup?

lanna-lovely said...

Honestly, it depends on the book.

There are certain books where I can't stand to have very rainbows and butterflies type endings, but for some it works - I have examples, but I can't really say what they are seeing as we're talking about book endings and that would totally spoil them. Damn. :P

As far as series go, I like them to tie up enough of the loose ends in each book that the ending feels satisfying, like that first story is over but the bigger picture isn't done yet and can continue into the next one. It doesn't really bother me which mood each book ends on (happy, sad etc.) as long as the final book in the series ties up the important loose ends and ends on a somewhat happy note.

I don't like books in a series that feel like filler books, just there to set up for the sequel - I like it when each book in a series has it's own story to tell, it's own story arc that it goes through (a good example would be the Harry Potter books - each one does set up for a sequel, but there is always so much going on in each book and each book has it's own climax and ending that it doesn't feel unfinished, Harry's story as a whole remains unfinished until the last book, but each book isn't).

It's hard to explain the endings that I like, because like I said, it all depends on the books - I could say I hated one type of ending but there's always exceptions, it really does depend on the story. Some authors can't make some endings work, while others can (gah, it's really difficult to properly explain without giving examples).

I think generally, the endings I tend to like best - judging from my favourite books - are bittersweet endings... ones that are happy, but not so happy that they become unrealistic, like a bad Disney movie. Happy enough that it leaves you satisfied but not so annoyingly sweet that you get literary toothache.

holly cupala said...

Great question! I just read a fantasy book (perhaps the same one?) where it ended on such a cliffhanger that as a reader I felt betrayed and manipulated. In all other ways, it was an excellent read, but I probably won't pick up the sequel.

I think, in a really well-done series book ending, the story at hand will wrap up in a compelling way, but there will be clues to more overarching issues that can be dealt with in subsequent books - which, from your description, sounds like the second novel.

I know of more than one author that learned this the hard way - I hope it doesn't become a trend!

Vivian said...

I love this discussion! Thanks so much for your feedback--Holly, Steph Su, Lanna-lovely, Chris and Jim!

This definitely gives me food for thought when I'm examining my endings!

Suzanne Casamento said...

I agree with Jim, that all the major plotlines should be wrapped up. They don't have to be perfect and tidy, just addressed.

And as for the ending tone, for me, it doesn't have to be happy. It can even be sad, but I do like for there to be a hint of hope.

Priya said...

I usually prefer endings to be gradual. I hate it when the climax occurs ten pages before the ending, because then the whole conclusion feels rushed. Most gradual endings also wrap up the main story well, which I like.

I also like it when the author leaves you with a question at the end. Not a cliffhanger one like "What will happen to _______?" but something that makes me think, or wonder what could have happened.

beckylevine said...

It's hard to explain, but I want the story in this book to be resolved. This book is about this story, and I want that to be the priority of the ending--to tie things up. Like you said, it doesn't have to be happy, but yes satisfactory.

If you like any kind of fantasy/sci-fi/humor (or even if you don't), you might try a few of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. He seeds lots of little things that will come up in later books, but they're seeded as part of the current story, not just dropped in. And even if, at the end of the book, we know there's trouble coming somewhere else in the series, he has solved the problems in this book and saved the world.

PJ Hoover said...

Now I must know what books you are talking about! Email the group :)
I am a bit annoyed when a series book kind of just stops with really no sense of completion. I want to feel like I'm not sitting around worrying until the next book. I want to be assured or at least feel like things are complete.
On a non-series book, tie everything up. Every thing. Don't leave me wondering if a sequel is in the works.

Solvang Sherrie said...

I hate when a book leaves me hanging. It's so wrong! It makes me mad at the author, mad at the book, mad at myself for investing the time. Some of my favorite books had unhappy endings, but they ended. I think Rick Riordan did a good job of tying up each book in the Percy Jackson series. You wanted to read more, but you felt like each story had reached it's own conclusion.

Chris said...

The answer to the question about what makes a good ending is in the same category as 'How long is a piece of string?'

The answer depends on so many different factors that it is impossible to create a 'standard rule' - but then do we want a standard rule?

As a writer - Randolph's Challenge, Book One-The Pendulum Swings, yes, you've guessed it is a fantasy trilogy! I found it quite difficult to create a balance between keeping the reader in book one and introducing them to book two (and even book three) - 'cause I know what happens further down the line.

I suppose, I wouldn't want to get too hung up with dilema. Maybe the answer for both reader and writer is to work with the 'feel' of the story - if it needs to look forward, then let it.

Chris Warren
Author and Freelance Writer
Randolph's Challenge, Book One-The Pendulum Swings

sheila said...

Well, I suppose like the others I appreciate it when all the major plotlines are wrapped up good and tight. For example, JKRowling spent a lot of time going over career advice for the Big Three in the HP series but we never DO find out what their careers were. And where the heck did Fawkes go? (these are the sorts of things that drive me nuts) I'm okay with tantalizing surprises though, as long as it's not a 'prelude to a disaster' sort of thing.
Diana Wynne Jones often leaves things a little vague, but I find her stories fascinating BECAUSE of this. I like how you never really know...
A movie reviewer friend of mine once told me that she HATES movies with too many plotlines in them (ie: Love, Actually) because she hates having to keep everyone straight. This only bothers me if it happens in a book and the characters are not clearly delineated.

holly cupala said...

I'm back because I just put down a SECOND fantasy with the same problem - and now I'm wondering if this is the book to which you were referring in the original post.

Unlike the first I mentioned, this was not excellent in all other ways - though it had a very intriguing premise and promising first section. There were some beautiful sentences...that lost their beauty with repetition. Eventually I put it down because I could see it would end unresolved.

How could that author have kept me? Conflict. Pacing. Believable characters. Tighter language. And yes, hope of resolution!

PJ Hoover said...

Oh, and see, now I want to know what book you're talking about, Holly!
Please tell Vivian so she can tell me :)

Shelli said...

i like some wrap up with a cliffhanger . makes me want to read the next one.:)

Kelly H-Y said...

I like a good ending that wraps up all the plot lines. I love the feeling that I'd like to read more ... that I don't want it to end ... but I don't want it to leave me hanging and wondering.

BJW said...

Great discussion Vivian. I think the former comments have expressed what I would have. I don't know if you're comfortable telling me here, but you could email me if you want. I'm dying to know who in your writing group was at the same conference at Reed as me. There was a bunch of really cool people there. email me at bwatson23@hotmail.com with the secret answer or just post it on my blog. I'd LOVE to know who. Sorry for changing the subject.

I'll say on thing on subject, if some books are known up front to be part of a three-seven book series, I expect the bigger plots/etc, to be revealed over the whole thing. However, I still want each story to have a sense of completion. I do hate rereading everything that happened in the last book, as they catch me up to speed. Guess it can't always be avoided, but, makes me want to skip it.

Chris/Leila said...

When I hear the word series, I think of things a little differently, since my new series is open ended, direct-to-paperback, like Nancy Drew and all those other series that kids might not even read in order. So like Nancy Drew, I wrap up each adventure at the end of the book. I try to include a teaser for the next one, though -- "the next ghost we'll investigate is...."

When the series is, instead, really one big story split into pieces, endings are obviously going to be harder. But they need that sense of closure. I like to feel that something could happen next... while I'm satisfied with the current situation. I've stopped reading a couple of series when I realized that the main plot line wouldn't be finished for four or more books. Characters and subplots can develop over time, though -- the Sammy Keyes mysteries are good example.

Chris Eboch
Haunted: The Ghost on the Stairs and The Phantom Pilot

Sean Ashby said...

I'd say for a first book, the majority of it should be resolved with maybe a few open ends. Then once you get further into the series, and your readers are more devoted, you can leave them with cliffhangers.

The series I enjoyed always seem to follow that pattern anyway!