Forgoing the Tidy Ending (a rant)


Image from Dina Goldstein’s  Fallen Princesses photograph series.

As a writer, I have to spend time thinking about the ends of stories. A television show has an hour (well 45 minutes plus commercials) to set a problem and resolve it satisfactorily. Few television shows can afford to go with a messy ending with loose ends, because that isn’t what most people want from an hour of entertainment. Movies and plays, particularly art movies and tragedies, can take the risk of having an unhappy ending, but they still like to tie off the various subplots. Books can have very tragic endings, but everything still tends to get tidied away.

In real life, there are no tidy endings.Real life is a Gordian Knot.


Patrick Corrigan illustration of a Gordian Knot.

What do you – as a writer – risk by forgoing the happily ever after? Well, you may alienate some of your audience. Some people read purely for entertainment and don’t want to have to think deeply about the ending; and there is nothing wrong with that.

But other people read to have their thoughts provoked.So long as you are consistent, and your plot is logical, these readers don’t (or won’t) mind the story ending like an untidy pile of knitting left to unravel. These endings are particularly favoured by big ‘L’ literary books, but genre authors can utilise these endings to good effect. I’m thinking of Lois Lowry’s The Giver as an example.


Some genres can’t have avoid happily ever after endings. A happy resolution is part of the classification of the Romance genre and the Fairy Tale. However, don’t confuse a happy ending with a tidy ending. A happy ending depends heavily on where you end the story. Happily ever after is conditional – if Cinderella’s story had ended before the fairy godmother’s visit, the end is sad and tragic.

Happy ever after is conditional.PNG

A twist ending can still be a tidy ending, if all the twists still lead to a neatly wrapped up ending. Twists are how you end up with a Celtic Princess Braid jumper, but it won’t unravel.

As I become more confident in my writing, I am moving away from the too tidy ending. It isn’t that I want to add a level of realism and verisimilitude to my writing, because of course I do; but this interest in knotty endings is more of a rebellion against the sameness of tidy endings. As Leo Tolstoy noted: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy is its own way. Human beings are messy. Relationships are messy. I want my writing to memorable and original, and so, once in a while, I will try to avoid the ‘sameness’ of a tidy ending.





Filed under Plot, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Career, Writing Style

2 responses to “Forgoing the Tidy Ending (a rant)

  1. It’s not whether it’s a happy ending, a sad ending, a neatly tied-up-in-a-bow ending, or a loose-ends-everywhere ending. It’s whether it is a *satisfying* ending.

    My wife says I can’t write a happy ending, which is absolutely not true. But I don’t write happy ever afters, or sad ever afters, I write: “and that’s how the story finishes” endings. Character’s lives go on, they may be happy, they may not, but the story being told is complete.

    I have been annoyed by buying a story which was just “Act I” and therefore went nowhere (it was a trick to make me buy the next: it failed). I has heartily disgusted by an “okay” book which ended with the protagonist being stupid and acting out of character right at the end, just to create a cliffhanger to the next story. So pathetic I swore I’d never read that author again.

    What readers want is a satisfying ending. (Unless it’s romance when it must be HEA/HFA.)

    • I dislike trilogies where the individual books cannot stand alone. LOTR manages to make each book a solid story without the others, and it was the original fantasy trilogy. A satisfactory ending is a must, I agree.

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