Monday night was rough.
I know that sentence conjures up images of raucous nights of partying, perhaps a high-speed chase or an arrest. But I’m talking “bad” from a viewer/reader sense. First, I was quite disappointed with the ending of The X-Files. Yeah, I’m talking about THAT cliff-hanger. Then later that night I finished a book, and it, too, had a surprising – and disappointing – ending.
After some (much) initial complaining to my husband and friends, I decided to turn things around and learn from this. I’m a writer – certainly I could benefit from examining exactly what irked me so much about these endings. Here’s what I’ve determined:
The issue: In case you missed my last post, I was a die-hard fan in the 90s, and I viewed this year’s resurrection as a farewell season that would answer questions and tie up loose ends. Instead, they ended what is supposed to be the final show ever with an abrupt, confusing cliff-hanger. I’m hoping this means another season or another movie, but thus far nothing has been confirmed.
The lesson: Don’t leave your fans hanging. If you don’t have a sequel waiting in the wings, don’t leave your ending so open that readers are left lost and irritated. Sure, there’s room for a bit of mystery/ambiguity sometimes, so the reader can fill in some blanks. At the end of THE HANDMAID’S TALE, we don’t know where Offred is being taken (to a good place or bad), except away from her current horrible situation. The “historical notes” provide just enough clues to satisfy me as a reader. But to me, this is the exception. Usually, I want resolution, closure, satisfaction.
The issue: I’m not naming this book because I don’t want to be a jerk and also in case anyone else is reading it. The book is superbly written; this is an excellent author. But, the ending (again, to me) was a disappointment. Readers find out in the last 10 pages that things weren’t as they seemed – the MC had already died, some characters never even existed. Later, I realized this ending could be a way to show there have been so many lives cut short throughout humankind’s history of wars, etc., and this was a way to imagine how one of these lives could’ve been led. But here’s the thing: I’d invested a lot of time and energy into this 450-page novel. I felt betrayed, honestly. I cared about those characters who ended up not being real. (OK, yes, I know this is fiction, so technically none of the characters are real, but you get my point.)
The lesson: Don’t trick your readers. You want them to feel happy they’ve invested in your characters and your story, not end up feeling cheated. I do love twists, but I also think timing is key. I can’t say for sure, but it might have helped if I would’ve known about this plot twist sooner and had more time to come to terms with it. Think about GONE GIRL – you go through half the book thinking Nick is a wife killer on top of being a douche, and then halfway through you’re thrown the curve of whoa! She’s alive! He’s not a killer, just a douche! But you have plenty of time to process it. And then you as a reader are in on the the secret.
The disclaimer: I realize a lot of this boils down to personal preference on my part. These are my interpretations of the endings – these are the lessons I am personally taking away from them. Other readers and writers could and likely would disagree – perhaps you do, too, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!
As for me, I’ll definitely be applying these lessons to my writing from now. I might even go back through my finished work and try to determine if I’ve made these mistakes. Of course there is no way to please everyone, but you can work hard to create the best possible experience for your readers. I think that’s every author’s goal.