Unsatisfying Endings

Barbara Vey -- December 21st, 2011

The wonderful writers of WisRWA invited me to their Christmas Party and I happily attended.  There’s something magical about a party where all the guests have something in common with you like the love of books.  We ate, there was a gift exchange (with much oohing and ahhing when someone received  something related to writing or books) and we talked.


One subject that came up was the unsatisfying ending to an otherwise great read.  Not that it wasn’t a necessarily happily ever after, but that lingering question of what happened next.  I know it’s been done for years, but I’m not a fan of it either.  I loved Gone With the Wind, but Rhett leaving Scarlett at the end and not knowing what was happening next frustrated me.  (And the sequel, Scarlett, coming out years later didn’t help.)  I guess I like my book endings to be tied up with a little bow.


Not wanting to give any spoilers away I won’t tell you the book, just some endings that were mentioned by others as leaving them wanting at the end of otherwise enjoyable books.  First, a man is at the airport waiting for the woman he loves and her child to return to him.  No more pages and no sequels.  The reader doesn’t know if she ever gets off the plane or not.  Next, a woman comes to America searching for her long lost love, never knowing if he has turned into an outlaw.  At the end, the head of the outlaw is displayed, but never identified to the reader.  The group feeling was that after reading the whole book, there should be a definite payoff.


Yep, give me a good epilogue any day.  I need that in my books.  I don’t want to have to think about what happens next.  Of course, if I do read a book that doesn’t have an ending, I’ll just make up a happy ending because that’s what I do, but I will be wary about reading that author again. The exception to this rule is a series where I know there will be an answer in the next book.  This too can backfire if the publisher doesn’t want to put out the next book.  I’ve seen that happen.


What about you?  Do you absolutely need to know what happens next?  Are you willing to have a book leave you hanging for you to fill in the blanks?  Is it ok with you to write your own ending to books you’ve read? Or is the ending so unsatisfying that you wish they would have left it open ended?


Bottom Line:  I can only imagine my reaction if To Kill a Mockingbird had ended with the line, “The jury finds the defendant….”


89 thoughts on “Unsatisfying Endings

  1. Barbara Monajem

    I can do without epilogues. I don’t hate them, but I’m just as happy without them. I like a happy ending that makes me wonder how the couple will manage in the future — what obstacles they will face in their continuing relationship. The most unsatisfying ending I ever read in a romance was where the couple did something fundamentally dishonest right at the end. I understood why they did it, but it added something unpleasant to an otherwise happy ending.

  2. Christine T.

    Yes, if an ending is unsatisfying or too open-ended I have been known to do some rewriting in my own mind. I don’t particularly need everything wrapped and tidy but I like at least some closure. It’s especially frustrating if you’re a series reader and the series is cancelled by the publisher–although since the internet some authors have actually responded to that situation on their websites by telling readers what they had in mind. Of course there’s also the extreme when the author dies before finishing a series or book (Charles Dickens and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” for instance).
    This topic has also come up with film critics reviewing this year’s movies-the ending that isn’t (the protagonist heads out of town but…; the planet is about to get hit by a meteor but….; the romantic leads love each other but…). That’s usually good for a debate but I’ve been in the audience when we’ve just turned to each other and went ‘that’s it!!’
    Writers (and directors) are entitled to their visions but it’s never a good idea to frustrate your audience because many of them won’t come back.

  3. Missy Taylor

    Oh yeah I want an ending and to be honest I want a HAPPY ending. (which is why I’m not a fan of love stories. Give me a good old fashion romance any day!

  4. Holly Jacobs

    Just popping in to say Merry Christmas, Barbara!

    And I’ll confess, I’m a huge fan of HEA’s. Love epilogues, too. One of the reasons I enjoy writing trilogies/series, is not only do I get to give the characters (and readers) a HEA, but I can let them see even more about them in books that are further along in the series!


  5. Kitti

    To be honest, I have written my own endings (in my mind) to a number of fantasy series, including Wheel of Time. And that was before Robert Jordan died; the last good book in my opinion was book 4.

    Outside of that, I’m usually OK with open-ended stories, especially if the narrative ran in a day-in-the-life manner. It seems fitting. But if the story is tight and winds you up for the end? Oh, it had better be wrapped up nice and clean!!

  6. Monica Enderle Pierce

    I’m struggling with this question in my current WIP. I have one reader who found the ending open-ended, but satisfying and compelling. Another beta was dissatisfied, although also compelled. The book is the first of a series, but I don’t want to leave my readers frustrated. It’s a tricky balance, so it was nice to see some general reader feelings on this subject. Thanks and happy holidays!

  7. Radcliffe

    This is a very good topic. I definitely need closure – hopefully a happy or at least optimistic one. Just leaving you hanging is unfair – after all, you went through all the trouble of reading! This is also true in the case of movies or TV. I don’t buy the argument that it’s up to my imagination. As a writer, you’ve gotten me interested in your world – now you need to follow through and give me an ending. : )

  8. Vanessa

    I prefer my romance novels to end on a happily ever after note. If I’m reading a mystery, there has to be some closure. I don’t want to have to guess. And that would have been a terrible ending to “To Kill A Mockingbird” – a great book and a pretty darn good movie with Gregory Peck. :-)

  9. AmyB

    I agree with the majority…give me some kind of closure. I’m OK if I know it’s part of a series, but otherwise, not so much. Epilogues work well for me, as they often touch on years down the road & give some satisfaction.

    Maybe I lack the patience or creativity for open-ended, but my ultimate response is “What? Is that it? Seriously? Ugh…good book, but bad ending.”

    And that’s my 2 cents.

  10. paul

    Whenever I read an epilogue to a fictional story I almost always think, I bet the editor made the writer put that in. Epilogues always seem forced and terse.

    As for bad endings to good reads, I nominate THE KITE RUNNER and THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE.

  11. Vicki Hopkins

    Great topic! I wrote a somewhat unsatisfying ending in my first book in a series and it caused a storm of people wanting to throw it across the room. Since it was my debut, I didn’t realize most readers need to feel some satisfaction. Though the second ties up the loose ends, I did it again as a lead into the third in the series. I like to use prologues and epilogues. I like to tease and lead readers to search out more. Whether that’s a tactic that works, is debatable.

    I think the canned cookie cutters for romance are all happy endings. So books that don’t include them are more fictional, with romantic elements. Hanging endings work for me too, because I always imagine the what if’s. Gives your creative mind a chance to explore various outcomes.

    Enjoying the insights to comments too.

  12. Lois Santalo

    I’ve found that not everyone agrees about what a good ending is. In my first published novel, The Wind Dies at Sunrise, I had the heroine opt out of a relationship obviously toxic. I thought that was the happy ending.
    To my surprise, all my young readers (the book was YA) were bitterly disappointed; they’d anticipated that the male protagonist would suddenly see the error of his ways and reform. As a result, the book never became very popular.

    1. Radcliffe

      Oh no! That is truly unfortunate – just two different perspectives! You taking the practical example of a strong woman, and them still the idealistic, hopeless romantics. At that age, I was a hopless romantic too – but now – I would say you had the better idea. : )

  13. Julie Graddy

    Great topic. Under the category “unsatisfying endings,” Roth’s “The Plot Against America” rates right up there despite all the adulation this author gets, no matter what he writes. Talk about staged and tagged on. Or Susan Kohler’s “Bluebird,” which I discovered for $1 in a Dollar General recently — she gets you to totally invest in the aristocratic chracter’s incredible love for life and adventure in the midst of tragedy and hardship, only to have her meekly return to France with milktoast hubby following the end of the Reign of Terror, with the rationale (I guess) that the story follows a real woman’s diary. Really?

  14. Ray Peden

    Life itself is a story with no predetermined outcome, and while I’m OK with that, I expect more than loose ends when I open a new book. I can clearly see: it has a final page. I know that before I start. So I expect something to be there, waiting for me, something that justifies spending hours, even pleasurable ones, digesting 350-400 pages. If I didn’t, I’d just read the first chapter, then the last few pages, add it to my book count, and move on.
    Life could end tomorrow, or carry me into my golden years, drooling and dragging my walker to the dining room of the rest home, and that uncertainty is expected. But my book needs some termination, even if every question is not answered, every dilemma for my characters resolved.

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