Loose ends are those things in the story that never get resolved.
If you like loose ends:
Some stories use this technique to end the story, especially in the thriller/horror genres. It’s a technique where the writer can let the reader decide what the real ending is. It’s often the twist that leaves the reader hanging.
For example, in the movie Premonition with Sandra Bullock, the story ends with the heroine being pregnant with her husband’s child (and her husband is dead, as far as we know). She hears the shower running. No one should be there, so she goes to check behind the curtain. Then she gasps. We never see what she saw. That’s where it ends. So you’re left wondering, “Who the heck is in the shower?” Given everything she’d been through in the movie, it could be her husband or someone else. You just don’t know.
A loose end can also be a, “Was the story real?” question. I can’t think of any story off the top of my head, but let’s say we go through the entire story and the character wakes up, thinking it was all a dream. But then, he sees something in his real life that reminds him of the “dream” he just had. And this leaves the reader wondering, “Was it really a dream, or did it really happen?”
If you don’t like loose ends:
Tying up loose ends can come in the book or later in the series, but somehow in someway, everything finds a satisfactory ending point so the reader isn’t left wondering, “What the heck?”
When I’m writing a story, I’ll spend time during the last couple of chapters figuring out where all of my unresolved plot points are. These can range from minor issues (such as friends needing to have a heart-to-heart talk after a misunderstanding) to major ones (such as tracking down the identity of the killer). Loose ends are anything you introduce in the story that need resolution in order for the story to feel complete.
In romance, it’s typical to tie up all loose ends. There might be a hint to another character’s story, but overall, the story can act as a standalone novel in the series. Often in fantasy series, there are loose ends up until the last book, though there can definitely be fantasy series where each novel in the series can be a standalone novel. (Pier Anthony is good in this area.)
If you decide to use a plot point (or two) that span the entire series, the trick is not making it such a huge loose end that the reader feels like she didn’t get a complete story. I don’t know how it is in other genres, but romance readers hate cliffhangers, even if the story is in serial format. Regardless of genre, though, if you have a cliffhanger, I recommend having the next book out quickly (like in a month or less) so you don’t leave the reader hanging for too long.
To avoid upsetting readers with an ongoing loose end in the series, I recommend that you make each book in the series a complete story. For example, Book 1 needs to have it’s major conflict resolved. Book 2 will have a different major conflict that will, in turn, be resolved by the end of that book. Same for Book 3, etc. If you are running an underlying conflict (aka. loose end) that is spanning through the series, it should be minor enough not to leave the reader upset if you don’t resolve it right away. But, the final book in the series needs to resolve this particular loose end.
(If this post was confusing, please let me know. I struggled with how to best explain this one.)
Not confusing at all! In general, I don’t like loose ends unless I can assume a positive outcome. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, did this. Most of the loose ends get tied up, but not all of them. You’re left wondering what will happen in the future, but you get a strong sense that everything is going to turn out fine. Life will continue. Our cast of characters will remain strong enough to take on future challenges
Romance novels often do this as well. Our happy couple gets together. We assume that they will stay together, but we are also left to assume that things won’t be perfect, that whatever quirky twists of fate that plagued our characters’ courtship will continue, but it’s nothing the couple can’t handle.
A little mystery, a few loose ends, makes the story feel like it can continue without the reader. However, I really hate a books/movie with dramatic cliffhangers. It makes me feel as though I’ve wasted my time, like my emotions have been toyed with.
I agree. When I read Gone With the Wind, Scarlett had managed to get everything she ever wanted eventually (even Ashley if she had wanted him), but by then she wanted Rhett. And though Rhett had said that famous, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” line, it’s implied she’ll get him because the book ends with her determined to do it. The movie had a more grim feel to it, at least for me.
For an author to successfully pull off the ending like you’re talking about requires skill. I don’t think every author can do it. I know I can’t. 🙂
Excellent post. I work hard to tie up loose ends, but sometimes, things have to be left to the reader’s imagination. You’ve left the heroine pregnant. Does the reader need to know that five months down the line she’ll have a girl? Is that relevant to the story, or is it a factoid you can use to start another episode of the story. I’ve done both. Resolved issues and left others to resolve themselves in the future.
I’ve left heroines pregnant. I figure as long as they’re a happy ending to the romance, that’s all the book needs. 🙂
If I’m going to do another book in the series, chances are the reader will find out what the heroine has so there’s no point in being redundant. At other times, I might use the opportunity to use the scene for people on my email list when I release the book.
Oh, and I do leave a loose end if I plan to address it in a future book. I’ve found it makes the next book a lot better when there’s been some backstory in a previous book. 🙂
I’ve read books that have such major cliffhangers, it feels like it just abruptly stops. I hate that. The thing is, most authors do this so the reader will continue on with the next story. But I’ve had a few that made me mad enough that I refused to read anything else by the author. So you have to be really careful with cliffhangers. If done right, they can work. But don’t just abruptly cut things off in the middle of a scene!
When I wrote The Vampires’ Curse trilogy, what I tried to do is have each one with an individual story for that book, but the romance ran through all three books. In the third book, they are searching for something that disappeared in the first book, but I didn’t really imply in the first book that it would ever be found, so readers weren’t really expecting the search in the third book. This whole loose ends thing can be really tricky. It’s hard to do right.
Loose ends are tricky. I don’t like the abrupt stopping in the middle of a scene technique. I know authors are trying to get the reader to buy the next book, but it only aggravates me. I don’t need to know how anything plays out that badly.
I think you did the right technique in your series. I like the main question being answered in each story. Underlying plot points are actually fun, especially after putting all the whole series together and seeing how things evolved. 🙂