Why Endings So Often Disappoint Readers

I’ve posted about the difficulty of nailing an ending before. More than once, I’ve had to completely abandon the conclusion of my rough draft and write an entirely new ending. When I said in the title of this post that endings “disappoint,” I really wanted to use that word that Bart Simpson made popular in the late ’80s that some of my readers insist is almost as bad as actual profanity. I’ll refrain.

I’m thinking about endings because this week I’ve got a couple short stories to write, and I’ve been reading some classics by Philip K. Dick for inspiration, as well. Man, that guy could write, and he really nails the ending more often than not.

One of the stories I’m currently writing is a re-interpretation of an old, old project of mine. (Actually two of them are, but only one of them have I written an ending for so far.) I finished the rough draft yesterday morning and it pretty much…disappoints. (See, I wanted to use that Bart Simpson word again.) The feeling was familiar to me, because about 75% of the time, when I get to the end of the story, I hate the ending. This is both as a reader, and as a writer, by the way.

And then, about a half an hour ago, I had a conversation with my best friend about The Knife of Never Letting Go, in which I admitted to hating the ending of the novel despite its very compelling beginning.

When I’m a writer, at least I get to go back and fix the ending. But when I’m the reader, I’m kinda stuck. I could write Patrick Ness, the guy who wrote The Knife of Never Letting Go, and tell him that he should have gone for a combo of The Giver and The Road. I could tell him that I noticed the strings he was pulling me by in order to jerk my emotions around and didn’t like it. However, it would do no good, because the book has been published and sold way more copies than I’ll likely every sell.

Anyway, since many of you out there are writers, as well as readers, I would like to share some of my observations with you. I’m not sure that a writer can do much about issues #1 and #2. But I think it’s worth considering #3 when writing and revising. You’ll see what I mean when you read on.

  1. The beginning of a book or short story is less laden with political/spiritual/moral/psychological interpretations. The conclusion is just the opposite. The beginning of a piece mostly establishes facts, while the ending highlights opinions that answer the questions stimulated by the initial event. Therefore, if you don’t agree with the political/spiritual/moral/psychological perspective of an author, it is likely you will find something to annoy you in the way they wrap the story up, even if you like the beginning of the story.
  2. In a related point, when a reader begins a story, the set-up might trigger a response in their brain independent of what the writer’s intentions were, particularly if the characters are compelling. Those “creative” readers can imagine what will happen further along in the story based on the earlier stages of it. Such readers formulate guesses about how problems will be solved, plan a character’s success, failure, or redemption. By fixing on a single conclusion, the author denies the fantasies of the reader. 
  3. Sometimes authors imagine the ending first, or an image or situation in the middle, but usually they imagine the beginning first. “What would happen if X happened to Y? And then…” is a classic way writers conceive of a story. These musings are the germ of a writing project, and the story will begin by setting up the problem nestled in this idea. Most authors still write stories from beginning to end, in order, and most of them don’t finish even a first draft of a short story in a single setting. Since most writers cannot resist the bad habit of revising as they go along, that can mean that the beginning of the story was tuned and refined 5, 10, or 15 times, while the ending of the same story can be revised just a couple times. This is particularly true if the writer is on deadline.

I’m curious to hear what people think of my theory, whether they have other ideas the explain the phenomenon of the “bad ending,” and what do they think could improve endings. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Why Endings So Often Disappoint Readers

  1. Some endings have disappointed me (Brave New World – the Native American guy’s legs kept rotating or something — ridiculous! Song of Solomon – Of course he can’t fly; he just jumped – so?), or just left me wondering (1984 – why didn’t they just kill him? Oh, they wanted to use him…? ). The end of the fifth Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book was a dud, and I never quite understood what drove Book 4 either. The endings of other books made it obvious that the author left something for a sequel, and yet the sequels don’t always materialize (The Last Ember, by Daniel Levin — nu?).

    I essentially agree with your first two points. However, I will say that if a novelist is clever enough to keep you guessing throughout the book, and then wraps things up in an equally clever way, I almost want to stand up and cheer at the end (not in public).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s