Question: Do Endings Matter?

bookend_small.jpgTime for an opinion poll in the form of an open-ended question. Does the ending of a book matter to you? More specifically, how much does the ending make or break the book? I’ve talked to several people who haven’t minded when a book had a weak or confusing ending, yet others who feel like it sinks an otherwise solid effort if the ending doesn’t completely satisfy.

I fall into the camp that says a serviceable ending is good enough. I’ve ready plenty of books where the ending was entirely predictable from the middle onwards and yet that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book. I’ve also read books where the ending trashes an otherwise good book, so I suppose the answer is ‘it depends.’

But I want to know what you think!

20 thoughts on “Question: Do Endings Matter?”

  1. Yes, endings matter. Very much. If the ending is weak it tells me the author doesn’t have control of the story, isn’t clear about what they are saying, or is too lazy to complete what they started. Worse than that, the ending is where the author should be bringing us to the point of the story, not fading away and leaving us to drift off. Having a weak ending is as bad as having a weak beginning or middle.

    With the current trend to series of novels in SF&F, there are a lot of books that just seem to stop at an arbitrary point. The reader has to read one or even two more books to get closure on the story. Sometimes it never comes – which is the reason I can’t stand TV series like ‘Lost’!

  2. Yes, the ending matters. As you said, a mediocre ending can be OK, although I naturally prefer a strong one. But a weak ending can spoil a good book. Case in point – I love Neal Stephenson’s ‘The Diamond Age’ but, apparently like quite a few other people, I find the ending weak and somewhat contrived, and it detracts from my enjoyment.

    I don’t think it’s as simple as “the ending makes or breaks the book”, though. The ending is an important part of the mix, and needs to be at least OK for the book to be great. However, the ending can certainly kill a book for me.

  3. Its the same for movies as well as books, and Brian Cox’s character in the movie Adaptation nails it on the head:

    The audience will love you if you deliver on the ending, even if you screw up earlier in the movie.

  4. I would vote that it depends. I’ve read lots of books with predictable endings, but I grew to care about the characters so much that I didn’t mind the predictability at all. That being said, a great ending, especially a surprise ending can move a book from being great to mind-blowing.

    John

  5. I often find that I can’t even remember what the ending of a book is! Even though I can vividly recall the world-building, plot, characters, etc. It’s probably got something to do with the way way my memory works — after spending a few days in the book’s universe, I finish it and all of a sudden move on to reading something else, so the bit at the end of the book doesn’t get fixed in my mind the way the previous few hundred pages do.

    So the upshot is, I don’t mind much about the ending, it’s what comes before that matters most to me.

  6. For me, endings matter a great deal because I’m looking for closure (even if intended ambiguity exists–that can be its own kind of closure). Unless the book is the start of a series I prefer that all the plot threads are wrapped up. It’s frustrating to reach the end and then have to ask, “But whatever happened to…?”

    I will go along for whatever ride the author creates, but the end also has to be consistent with what has gone before. As others have pointed out, problematic endings are more an indication of a problematic plot.

  7. Endings are very important. I just finished a particular short story that was a little on the long side (so I had some time invested), but I liked where it was going. While the ending was a bit predictable, it still could have gone in several directions. Turns out the ending was not at all what I expected but, in this case, also wholly unsatisfying b/c it left things just kind of hanging. Part of the storyline was resolved, but it left a whole other plot line incomplete.

    I think if the ending is predictable halfway through and the book then delivers on that prediction as expected then the author has not done his/her job.

  8. I largely agree with Heather.

    The ending matters a lot to me. I think part of the complication with this question is that there are lots of ways endings can go right and lots more ways endings can go wrong. For instance, several of the posts here focus on predictability. Predictability does not ruin an ending for me. Lack of satisfactory resolution does. I don’t mind leaving some plot threads dangling for the next book in the series, but I need to feel that the major threads from this work were resolved. I too have read large fantasy books where it seemed that the ending point was just arbitrarily chosen, and I have felt cheated by those.

    In a longer work, I also want to see the protagonist get a resolution that he or she “deserves.” It doesn’t mean all my main characters must achieve what they thought they were after, but if they fail, I want to feel that they grew in some other, appropriate way. Pure nihilism does not appeal to me in a novel. I have invested too much into the story and the characters for such an ending to satisfy me.

    I’m much more tolerant of that sort of edginess in short stories, though. I’m less invested in the characters, and therefore more willing to follow the author wherever he or she wants to go.

  9. A so-so ending can dampen what was a very high opinion of a book for me. One case of an ending totally ruining my prior feelings about a book was The Witching Hour by Anne Rice, don’t laugh. |-) I also thought the ending of the Harry Potter saga was disappointing, but I liked a lot of the story up until then.

    The above example aside, I don’t know that an ending can totally ruin or redeem a book for me.

  10. I’m with George and Joe, endings are really important. My biggest disapointment was the Dark Tower by Stephen King. I started to get really worried when he released an edited version of book 1 before continuing the series and unfortunately my worries were well-founded. The ending was almost farcical and there was almost no resolution to the main storyline that readers had invested themselves in for 7 books and a number of years.

  11. You wrote:

    I’ve ready plenty of books where the ending was entirely predictable from the middle onwards and yet that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book.

    You’ve made a really interesting assumption there about what a good ending is. Specifically, you seem to suggest that a good ending is unpredictable. I don’t think I agree.

    I think endings are very important and very difficult, but predictability doesn’t bother me. Losing tension in the story before you get to the end bothers me. Having the ending come out of left field bothers me. Having the end of the book feel unrelated to the story I’ve been reading bothers me.

    But as long as the end keeps the promises the writer made, I’m happy.

  12. You betcher bippy they matter.

    I will not infrequently get halfway through a book and then skip to the end to see if it’s worth finishing. If it doesn’t have a satisfying ending, I go read something else.

    This means, obviously, that I’m not surprised at the ending, but I get sufficiently dismayed when an ending unexpectedly sucks that it’s worth the tradeoff.

    (This behavior drives my husband *nuts*.)

  13. An ending that suits the book means an author has invested immense time and effort into making the read a success for his/er intended audience. Predictable or not, an ending that really demonstrates the author’s comand of and respect for the audience (eg, Farthing by Jo Walton and Mainspring by Jay Lake) makes that particular book a stand-out for me, one I recommend to people who aren’t fans of the genre of the book. Endings that are just places the author decided to stop writing or that show little sense by the author of what the reader most likely will be looking for (eg, American Gods by Neil Gaiman) take an otherwise wonderful reading experience and >floooosh

  14. I remember being reasonably satisfied with the ending of American Gods. At least, I certainly don’t remember it not working. I loved that book.

  15. The ending absolutely matters. It’s the most important part of the story. Without the ending to provide closure, release, completion, then the story doesn’t work. It doesn’t NOT work. It needs the ending to tell us, one way or the other.

    Consider a story to be like a bridge: It can be beautiful and structurally sound, but unless it is completed at both ends, then it’s not a bridge at all. (It’s a pier. I have no idea where THAT fits into the metaphor).

    You see the importance of endings in some TV shows, where they DON’T consider the endings. What you wind up with is years of strong stories and good writing that eventually strains and pales and, when the series is not renewed, you get a sort of “…and we’re done” ending.

    Rather than, say, the importance of an ending like Babylon 5, which was intended for five seasons and ended when they were done. Or, in comic books, Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series which ended at height of its popularity, because the story was complete. Without that ending, it would have just faded. Would the seventy-five issue storyline we were given have nearly so much meaning now, if it had been continued? If Neil Gaiman had left and someone else had continued plugging away stories about Dream? It would be like the endless runs of super-hero comics. PIck any super-hero. Their comic would have infinitely more meaning if, after so many issues, the run stopped (a hundred issues of planned Superman stories, handled well by someone who cared? It would be timeless.)

    The ending isn’t necessarily the most important part of the story. It can be a lousy ending to a great story. But it’s got to be there, in some shape or form, to validate the good or bad nature of everything that came before it.

  16. Every book has something wrong with it, so I wouldn’t be too dogmatic on the subject, personally. But if any part of a book is particularly bad — beginning, end, or middle (like the horribly drooping Harry Potter and the Oh God Isn’t the Series Over Yet?) — that affects the overall success of a book.

    A book that’s otherwise wonderful but has a horrible ending is, at best, an interesting failure. A book with an only mildly disappointing ending will lose some points as well, and probably will be forgotten pretty quickly — people remember good endings, and those are the books that get passed on to others as “You Gotta Read This!”

    I don’t see how anyone could say an ending doesn’t matter at all, unless it’s the kind of fanfic-writing anorak who likes to pretend that no books ever end anyway, because he’s living nestled deep inside them. Luckily, no one is actually saying that, so I can insult my strawman in peace.

  17. I think Andrew touches on an interesting point, which is that people REMEMBER good endings. And he mentions Harry Potter, which is a great example. My point is that the ending is the important piece, by its mere existence (and the necessity of)…but I think that a good ending is even more important. A justified ending, at least. I think a bad ending can have the result of completely negating the goodness of the rest of the story.

    Harry Potter’s a good example. I know that after the lackluster last book (which just sort of wandered…I mean literally…with a tent) that sort of fizzled out, it didn’t leave me with a huge desire to reread the series.

    Or, another example, was the movie they made out of Stephen King’s story “The Mist.” The ending left me so utterly furious and left me feeling so cheated and abused that I haven’t actually read any Stephen King since then, despite the huge number of King books on my shelf. I joke that we’re “not speaking right now,” and who knows how long that’ll last.

    A bad ending can do damage. A middling ending can just take away interest. A good ending can make you want to go back to page one and start reading the whole thing again.

  18. Endings are important. To me, the major function of an ending is to satisfactorily resolve the conflict. If it doesn’t do that, then it’s failed.

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