Wednesday, August 29, 2012


I have a joke with a few of the writers here on Stiletto that when I’m just about to get to the end of a manuscript but have run out of ideas, my inclination—one that I have never acted on, by the way—is to write “and then they all died.”  Because let’s face it, by the time you’ve written eighty thousand words or so, you are bone tired.  Tired of your keyboard, tired of your characters, tired of finding new ways to say “murdered.” (I personally like “bought it.”)  Eventually, knowing that that is not an acceptable way to end a story, you walk away from your computer and figure out how to tie up the loose ends by not killing all of your major characters, and by extension, your writing career.

I happened upon this topic because I just read a recently published book that skyrocketed to the top of the bestseller list, loving every single page, every single word until I got to the last chapter.  Then, the book completely fell apart for me, no resolution to the main conflict that existed for the better part of four hundred words.  Several friends and even my mother read this book and I anxiously awaited their comments when they finished.  They were all the same:

Loved the book.  Hated the ending.

Now don’t get me wrong:  I don’t necessarily like everything tied up in a very neat bow, every single loose end resolved in such a way that there is nary a question or concern upon my finishing of a book.  However, I do expect some justice for the aggrieved, some sort of comeuppance for the perpetrator, so to be left hanging leaves me feeling…well, for lack of a better word…aggrieved.  Obviously, though, in the case of the aforementioned bestseller, the author didn’t feel the same way, nor did their editor, I can only assume.  They both thought that the non-resolution brought forth by the main characters was suitable, maybe more like life itself? I’m not sure.  But it did leave a bad taste in my mouth, but not completely diminishing the joy that I felt while reading the book.

The ending of this book didn’t approach my favorite “and then they all died” ending but more like “and they lived…maybe not happily…maybe not forever…but at least for a little while.”  It was interesting to me that my visceral response was shared by everyone I knew who read the book as well as a bunch of really ticked off online reviewers whose consternation practically jumped off the screen.

How do you feel when you finish a book and are dissatisfied with the ending?  Does it affect future purchases of the same author’s books? Would it drive you to post a vitriolic rant on Amazon?  Would it depend on just how unsatisfying the ending was?

Maggie Barbieri


  1. In my tiny sphere we call this phenomenon "the Rush to Resolution" because it always reads as if someone got in a really big hurry to get the hell out of that story!

    I do feel let down, duped and cheated. If I've thought the story was good and well done to that point, the author may get some slack if they are young or their career is young and if the ending isn't really off the charts weak. But, with limited time to read in life, I often do write that writer off.

    I think I've given more chances and read more of a writer who, starting out especially, had an overall slightly weak book—not just a poor ending—because if you can see potential, you can stick with them and see how they improve as they grow as writers. For me writers like John Irving or Richard Russo come to mind—in both their cases, I was younger and so were they. I read smaller short stories of the works they would later develop as novels and I sort of rode with them because they delivered enough good with the not so good and they got better and better. Remember that Irving was all bears and wrestling, all the time, for a long time? Russo revisited the same world over and over and even he said once he saw a lead male character in his books as being the same guy over a long lifespan. This was Sully in “Nobody’s Fool”, who’d been the father/older man, albeit by other names, in several of his books, right up through “Empire Falls”. Both writers kept getting better and more intriguing to me and I’ve been reading those for 25-30 years!

    And, I do hold bad ending grudges against the author, too. I just feel like they could have written better and just didn’t, as evidenced by their well-written lead up to that bad ending! Maybe that's not fair (did they jump or were they pushed?), but I always tell myself that this is reasonable because I give almost all the positive reaction to the author when that's in the mix, when their work is really wonderful. Although, having a good editor can be really important . . .

    I don't often post too many rants, but I do sometimes write a review that tries to calmly reflect my disappointment and my experience. I think in the pools of on-line reviews, I get more riled up by reading the reviews of people who become absolute ninnies in my eyes when they fawn all over a book that this little reader finds so flawed. Those vitriolic reviews really are spurred by and directed at dopy readers, not so much the author of the work. We are arguing with each other over our tastes and positions and the author of the original book just gets shoved to the ground in the fight.

  2. Hmmm...I think I know what book you're referring to - and I had a similar reaction.

    There was a certain Scorcese movie a few years back that used the "and then they all died," ending, but it seemed to work with the movie. Movies can definitely get away with the questionable endings since they only involve 2 hours of your time rather than days & weeks.

  3. I did quit reading one authors books because of an ending because the main plot wasn't finished, the bad guy got away. It was a definite ploy to make you read the next book. Actually, I succumbed and did read the next one--but I just couldn't believe what happened in that one. That was it. No more for me. The author is extremely popular and continues to be so, so I guess I am in the minority.

  4. I should have added that I will buy the author's other books because I like the genre and style. I think that writing endings may be one of the writer's hardest jobs; at least it is for me! Maggie

  5. Maggie, I think the ending's the most important part as far as making sure the reader will read the next book. The old saying of "The opening sells the book, but the ending sells the next book" is really true.

    I like to write endings in which the main murder mystery plot is all resolved, but there's a cliffhanger of sorts for one or more of the subplots that involve the character's personal life. I like books that do this, but I hate books that don't resolve the main murder mystery plot and leave that on a cliffhanger. Not fair. Not good. The "kill them all" ending is better than that (and has a precedent in Shakespeare's Hamlet).

  6. Linda, we definitely have the same philosophy when it comes to endings. I usually have a cliffhanger affecting one or more of the characters in my series but not the main plot. Maggie

  7. I am a reader only, and I'm afraid I'm not as patient as you. I read one book, a bestseller, and felt so betrayed and emotionally manipulated by the ending that I won't read that author again. Which is okay, 'cause she doesn't need me, and I still have more books than I can ever finished. I don't leave rants on Amazon because I still adhere to if you don't have anything nice to say....

  8. Great post.

    I confess that, generally speaking, I prefer books where the good guys clearly win. I like cliffhangers of minor plot points (e.g., will the couple get together?), but the main points of the mystery should be resolved.

    There are enough times in the real world where it seems the bad guys triumph -- and I can't control that. But in the books I write and the ones that I read -- I'm looking for clear, unambiguous triumph of good over evil.


  9. Lil, I wish more people would adhere to that old saying... It really is so much nicer.

    That said, I recently read one of my fave authors and when I got to the last chapter, I felt let down (I think it's a different book/author, Maggie). I was left feeling like the bad stuff was starting back up again. And it left me sad. I'll keep reading (love this writer/this series), but I didn't enjoy it as much as past books and that was ONLY because of the last chapter.