Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Case of the Open-Ended Story

by Jennifer AlLee

I'm facing a literary dilemma... at the end of my novel-in-progress, Last Family Standing, I leave two plot points open at the end. They're not dangling threads that I accidentally forgot to tie up. I left them that way on purpose, for reasons I can't disclose here, lest I give away the ending. I like the way it works. However, my editor is concerned that readers may be frustrated by the lack of information. So now, I'm in a quandary.

There are many classic short stories and novels that don't provide an easy wrap up at the end. In both The Lady and the Tiger and The Monkey's Paw, the question is, what lies behind the door? The Bell Jar leaves us wondering what Esther's future holds. Even on television, the ending of the HBO series, The Sopranos, still has people talking about whether or not Tony got what was coming to him.

Granted, open-endings don't work for every story, and they are downright forbidden in some genres. Can you imagine a mystery with no clear cut ending? But life isn't always neat and tidy and, sometimes, neither is fiction. Sometimes, the opportunity to mull over what you've read and make up your own mind is far more powerful than having the ending handed to you.

My question for you today is this: What do you think of the open-ended ending? Do they challenge you? Frustrate you? What short story/novel/movie has either enthralled you with the open-ending, or made you want to scream?

JENNIFER ALLEE was born in Hollywood, California, and spent her first ten years living above a mortuary one block away from the famous intersection of Hollywood & Vine. Now she lives in the grace-filled city of Las Vegas, which just goes to prove she’s been blessed with a unique life. When she’s not busy spinning tales, she enjoys playing games with friends, attending live theater and movies, and singing at the top of her lungs to whatever happens to be playing on the car radio. Although she’s thrilled to be living out her lifelong dream of being a novelist, she considers raising her son to be her greatest creative accomplishment. She's a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Romance Writers of America, Christian Authors Network, and the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance. Her novels include The Pastor’s WifeThe Mother Road and A Wild Goose Chase Christmas from Abingdon Press; Diamond in the Rough and Vanishing Act, the first two books in the Charm and Deceit series, from Whitaker House and co-written with Lisa Karon Richardson; and the novella Comfort and Joy in the Christmas anthology, Mistletoe Memories from Barbour.


  1. Hmmm, I think an open ending would be extremely irritating to me. No, not every single question in a story has to be specifically answered, but the basic ending? Oh, yeah.

    Didn't see the Sopranos, so I can't comment on that one. The Monkey's Paw isn't specific, but to me it definitely suggests an ending. The Lady and the Tiger has always irritated me. What did he get?

    So perhaps motive or even "will this ending be what they thought when they're farther down the road?" can be left to conjecture, but the actual happenings?

    No, I wouldn't like it left open.

  2. I can't think of any literary examples, but I know how frustrated I get when I see a movie that leaves you hanging. It's one thing if you get the sense there's going to be a sequel or two... that's OK. But when it just ends without closure for the emotional connection you've made with the characters and the story, that's frustrating as all get out. The only time I think it works is in the dystopian stuff, where there IS no closure because it's supposed to make you think about the possibilities. Does that make any sense?

  3. How open ended? Gone with the Wind - was that open ended? I think so and yet that doesn't come to mind readily. Rhett walked out and it felt like a sad end for Scarlett but it also felt like it could have gone on to ' tomorrow'. That's why Alexandra Ripley wrote a sequel!

    It really is an example of your suggestion, Jen. That someone can make up the rest of the story. And perhaps it would have been weakened by a HEA!

    Also it depends on what genre you are calling this story. Is your option to pick one ending and let the other drop completely? what about choosing one and then adding the other as an alternative ending in an epilogue? As you have to be hush hush on this, it's hard to tell. Will you please a few readers who like the ending but annoy a few more? Hmmmmm...
    Chin-in-hand... I'm thinking...

  4. Hmm, tough question. If I'm reading/watching something that is intellectually stimulating, I don't always mind an open ending. If I'm reading/watching something for pleasure and expect a HEA, then I get angry over open endings. (Take the end of Chuck, for example. Pure fluffy entertainment. I did not like how it ended!)

  5. One thing I learned recently, is your characters should be so real, so three-dimensional, that there's more to them than just the story you're telling. If you, the writer, can't envision them in other situations outside your story, the reader is less likely to care about them. But if they're left with a satisfying ending, but can see there's more to the story, then that's okay. And it could lead to them wanting another book, too. I trust you, Jen. I'm sure it won't be an abrupt or harsh ending. Right? :)

  6. Hmmm, I'm a hater of cliff-hangers for TV series because I don't like to wait for resolution. I'm not a huge fan of open ended stories unless, like Nikki mentioned with dystopian make-you-think stories, it's supposed to be open ended.

    As a rule - I want closure, but if I can get a feel for what the author is trying to do - stray open ends aren't too bad.

  7. I think you're right about it depending on the genre. Literary novels do it a lot. I don't mind an open-ended finish that makes me thin, but I'm probably in the minority there. I was fine with only doing the first book of my Deep Within series and leaving the ending open, but readers demanded sequels to wrap things up.


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