This is another one where I had difficulty deciding on the title for the rant. By “loose ends,” I mean not just the usual subplots or themes and concepts that might drift about in the wind at the end of a novel, but those things you want to leave untied. I like those stories best that seem to go on beyond the end, the characters who live after you let them walk off the page, those plots with reverberations that don’t just stop with a bump. So this discusses, as I see it—always as I see it, because there are exceptions for each of these if the book is written well enough—some ways of judging what loose ends might work to enhance your story and which will just muddle it.
1) Frame of reference.
If you’re basing a story on a fairy tale, a myth, a classic work like Shakespeare’s plays, you probably have the most freedom with loose ends. If you don’t state outright that the Cinderella-like minor character will defeat her evil step-relatives and live happily ever after, your audience can still probably figure it out from their prior knowledge of the tale. Likewise, you don’t have to keep retelling every detail of the Arthurian story if yours takes on the Matter of Britain (though you may have to clarify which version you’re using). When the audience can share the frame of reference like this, they’ll be able to tell the plots do keep on going, that the characters have had prior lives full of exciting incidents which you’re not necessarily going to address, and that little ironies could pop up, such as if you have evil stepsister characters who really like wearing shoes.
If the frame of reference is another world, as is the case with subcreational fantasy, or a world full of political and historical events that might happen in our own but haven’t happened yet, like far-future science fiction, then you’ve got a few more problems. You might well leave a certain plotline untied because you know that in five years your prince will come back, a grown man, and defeat his evil brother, but if you don’t hint at that, your reader has no reason to know it, and will be understandably miffed at the prince just vanishing out of the story with no indication whether he’s alive or dead. Likewise, if a bunch of characters in your SF story keep referring to “the Great Vanishing,” and the ending of the book depends on its resemblance to the Great Vanishing to make sense, it should, at some point, be hinted/explained what exactly vanished, please. At least, if you want it to make sense, it should.
This depends in part on worldbuilding, but it also depends on realizing that just because you like/love/know something does not mean your audience does. You’re the author who has spent years inventing a world. They’re the people—in most cases—coming to it fresh for the first time. Expecting strangers to know as much about hidden resonances as your friends who’ve read over drafts of the story and talked to you about it is just cheating. This is one reason why books that are heavily dependent on in-jokes so often fall flat.
2) Mystical flights of fancy.
Occasionally, you get a fantasy author who is allergic to letting you know how the characters actually solve their problems. What happens at the climax of the book is a lot of pretty words, magic flying around, some concept of a fundamental change in the world, and then everybody living happily ever after.
I think climaxes are one of the places where you can least cheat. (Yes, once again, there are well-written exceptions to the rule. I’m talking about the generality, and my experience). If the characters’ problems are real, if they’re real people, and, especially, if the magic system of the world has so far been understandable even if not logical, it’s rather off-putting to suddenly be shunted to one side while the author has the magical system do things you can’t follow and the characters go opaque and the problems tie themselves up into neat little bows and take themselves off. If the author then resumes her usual clearer style after this, the sense of alienation while the magic does its Foo-Foo shit is all the stronger.
Ask yourself about your motivation for switching styles at the climax—especially if you use a lot of magic when magic has so far not been a strong presence in the story. It’s true that some people will assume anything they don’t understand is profound. And it’s also true that there are some people who will put down the book and go away; you’re hearing from one of them. This simply leaves too many loose ends floating about, and the overwhelming impression I get is that the author has no idea how to solve the characters’ problems and is fervently hoping that if she piles enough magic into the story I will not notice.
3) Mysteries and riddles.
What loose ends can be left because the writer wants to engage her audience in a game, a game that she knows not everyone will catch onto? I think a series of questions can be asked to determine the answer, and of course that answer will be different for every story:
- Why play the game? Does it make the story a better one to do so?
- Are the mysteries all equally important? If not, do the more important ones get the space they need to fully express themselves?
- How much do the riddles provide to the characters themselves? (I have a hard stare for riddles that just “happen” to show a character how to defeat an enemy or do something that no one else has been able to do for thousands of years, especially when the character discovers the answer entirely by coincidence and not through her own efforts).
- Could someone in the know actually guess everything? In other words, when the author writes a scene in which something odd or not quite comprehensible to a reader takes place, is she staying true to things like what the characters know and don’t know and could reasonably know, what has happened before this, what the motivations of the people involved are, and so on? (Best bad example here: a villain who plays a teasing, tormenting game with the hero and hints at his secret plans when he has no reason to do so).
- How much do you want someone to be able to guess?
I like books that play games and authors who trust my intelligence to follow along; I like fantasy that strains my conception of what happens. I don’t like stories where it seems the author has violated her own plot logic for the sake of keeping something “mysterious.” Ask yourself questions, and be able to give answers that will satisfy you. If the real answer to this side problem isn’t provided until a later book in the series, well, okay. But why are you doing that, and does it fit in with the rest of the story?
4) The special problems of series.
Sometimes, yes, something does need to be left unanswered, because it turns out to be a key mystery in one of the stories that follow later. So it doesn’t really matter if a character vanishes; he’ll get his fate revealed in another book. Or an underdeveloped setting—mentioned often enough to be distracting, but not truly used—turns into a major place. Or the loose ends of a particular character’s narrative arc resolve themselves after all.
The element of risk almost has to be taken, then, in order to have future foundations for a series. But there are cases where too much is left unanswered, and thus the ending of the last book in the series—especially the third book of trilogies—is rushed. What is the compromise? How does one go from one book to another without both trailing dropped threads all over and running the risk of permanently dropping them?
The solving of some minor mysteries or problems along the way, especially those that aren’t time-sensitive (there isn’t a particular point in the plot where they must be solved), can help. Why save everything for a huge reveal at the end? It often doesn’t work. I know the temptation, believe me, but I think I’ve also seen more cases where it doesn’t work than cases where it does. If some questions do get answered in each book, so some roads end and others begin, it has three benefits: it keeps the audience intrigued and moving along; it contributes nicely to the sense of pacing, enabling your ending to be less rushed; and it insures that no book in the series is merely “transition” or “set-up” for what comes next. I actually do believe this as an absolute rule: “Transitions” or “setups” should not take whole books, even if they take a good portion of them. The major failing of multi-volume fantasy series is that the author spends a whole book solving nothing, but just spinning new plot threads, and, not incidentally, his wheels.
For trilogies in particular, why not have the middle book provide a lot of solving? “The middle book problem” has its name for a reason; authors will stretch plots thin to provide a link between the introduction of book one and the solving/tying-up/action of book three. I think it would be better if the middle book instead handled some of the—at times overly—complicated plot, perhaps even solved the third most important mystery or problem or brought the third most important character arc to a satisfactory conclusion, instead of just taking a guided tour of the country or hinting mysteriously at what’s to come. One book out of three should not be a dud.
5) Know how to link loose ends with characterization.
Some characters will require more “room” than others. Their lives will be more likely to extend beyond the end of the book, full of exciting, unpredictable incident. What happens to them in the course of a single book does not define their whole existence. (At least, so I hope). They might have started out on the character arc that will ultimately end with a lot of their major conflicts settled, but we won’t get to see the end. So, for them, it makes more sense to leave threads trailing to bind them to the future than it does for someone who will continue for the rest of her life much as she’s lived in this book, or as she’s living at the end.
This is a case where the author does know more than the reader does about her characters but it’s not cheating to rely on that sense. She can easily convey a sense of growth for some and settling for others. And the characters who “settle” might be protagonists, while the growing, wilder ones might be minor. There’s no rule that says a protagonist can’t come home, reconcile with his past, and feel the full force of custom and tradition, while someone else runs away to a fate not as easily definable.
How to convey that context?
- Make at least a few questions explicitly unanswered, or unanswerable. (For example, with a character who’s gradually learning sympathy, one of the questions might be, “Will she ever learn sympathy for this particular group of people oppressed in the story?”) If it’s impossible to tell whether or not the character’s received the answers she sought, it’s probably a case of fuzzy writing.
- Show the character as still receptive to outside influences, which could come from the natural environment around her, up to the last pages of the book. If she turns away from the world, then she seems less likely to look out from herself in the future.
- Have her think in terms of possible futures and multiple ambitions. If she knows exactly where she’s going, and only ever aims her thought at that path, I tend to believe it’s what will happen to her.
- Leave some relationships in unexplored territory. The overly slick epilogue that has all the lovers married and expecting, all the conflicts turned into reconciliations, all the side characters who had to repent repented and done with the punishment for their crimes, is a pet hatred of mine.
- Show the greater forces of the world that do not respond to your characters’ will. In the case of a world recovering from a war or a famine, those scars left will show there’s still healing to be done.
And there are obviously other ways to do this.
There’s always a risk to take with loose ends. But that’s true of every single story that reaches for more than mediocrity.