December 17, 2010

How do you like your endings?

I was thinking the other day about how my tastes in book endings have changed over the years. When I was younger, it was happy endings all the way. Sad endings were just depressing, bittersweet a little unsettling. And if the author finished the book ambiguously - i.e. choose your own ending - that actually bothered me the most. I guess I figured since they'd written this much, why couldn't they complete the story properly? Did they not *know* how it was supposed to end? It frustrated me, having to guess how the characters' lives continued without knowing for certain. The story just didn't feel done.

Now that I'm older, I can more fully appreciate the irony and heartbreak inherent in a sad or bittersweet resolution to a story. I don't tend to seek out really sad-sounding books (for instance, where the main character is terminally ill and you know they're going to die in the end), but if an author can make me cry? That's a sign to me of emotionally engaging writing.

Bittersweet is even more poignant in some ways, because it highlights all the might-have-beens and what-ifs of the story; you know the characters could have been happier, but for whatever tragic reason, they can't be. And while I can appreciate the power of a sad or bittersweet story, I admit that I am less likely to re-read those. I am still a sucker for a happy ending, but it must feel genuine, not forced.

As for ones that end in a vague manner the reader is left to interpret...well, if I can see the point the author is trying to make, and the reason they chose to let it dangle, then I don't mind so much. But if it seems like they just couldn't decide how they wanted to finish it up, so they pulled the old let's-make-it-ambiguous-and-then-it-will-seem-all-deep-and-philosophical stunt...that just feels like a cop-out. The trick is distinguishing between the two!
Yep, sometimes the last page just seems like a dead end.

What about you, fellow readers? Do you like your endings happy, sad, bittersweet, or left up to you? How does it affect your reading experience? Does it make a difference to whether or not you'll re-read the book? Have your tastes changed at all?


  1. Lol, that's so interesting how you kind of changed over time. Actually, I was more tolerant of sad/open-ended endings when I was younger, and now that I'm older (and know just how sad/depressing the real world can be) I can't stand anything other than an at-least somewhat happy ending. It doesn't have to be butterflies and rainbows, but none of that "well, you know, real life doesn't always give you happy endings." I read that and think WORD. That's why I read!
    Lol. Loved this post! Very insightful.

  2. It depends on the book for me. I'm usually a happy ending type person, but like you said, I don't want it to feel forced. I really enjoyed how Mockingjay ended. It wasn't wrapped up in a nice bow, but it still ended happily enough. It seemed realistic for the series. So, I guess, I just want the ending to stay true to the book. As long as it does that, then I can appreciate it whether it's happy, sad, or unfinished (maybe not unfinished as much as the other two, though).

  3. @Amelia: Interesting that you didn't mind sad endings as much when you were younger! I do see your point - I frequently read to escape, and the real world can be very depressing, so I definitely get not wanting to have that in your books too! Glad you enjoyed the post :)

    @Jenni Elyse: I enjoyed the Mockingjay ending as well. There was certainly a bittersweetness about it, but it was a bittersweetness that made sense, and the very end seemed hopeful. I know what you mean about the ending being true to the book - if it just doesn't fit with the rest of the story and its tone, the effect can be jarring (I find this sometimes happens with epilogues in particular...for instance, Harry Potter.)

  4. This is a great question! I too used to only want books with happy endings (and, generally, those ones still make me feel best). I've also changed, though, and lots of books with bittersweet or ambiguous endings are the ones that stay with me longer. I like those endings where the main character has gained some things and lost others.

  5. This is a really interesting post, it made me think a lot! Most of the books I read have happy endings but it's nice to have a little variety too. It really depends what I'm in the mood for. Endings/books that have the power to make you cry are so powerful though and a sign of a truly talented author. Although, books with happier endings are more likely to be favourites.
    I agree with you about books that don't have clear endings. Even if I can imagine an ending, I still want to know what *actually* happened even though it isn't real. Otherwise it's like waiting for the last book in a series, you could imagine what might happen but it's not the same as reading it from the author.

    Who knows, maybe my tastes will change!?!?

  6. I don't need my books to end happily ever after, but I do like it when there's at least some hope of things working out in the end. And like Jenni said, it has to stay true to the book. If the whole book is filled with anguish and despair and at the end there all doing happy dances then it just doesn't fit.
    Like you I probably won't reread a book that has a sad ending, I see enough sad endings in my line of work, so I mostly don't feel the need to revisit that feeling.
    I did like the Harry Potter epilogue, it gave me closure, but I can see why a lot of people wouldn't like it.

  7. Wow, some great comments here!

    @Bea: Yes, bittersweet or ambiguous endings do tend to make me think more about the book for longer. But I do still need my uplifting happy endings too!

    @Stephanie: You raise a good point about the importance of a reader's mood. If I'm having a bad day I may just want to curl up with a light, fluffy book or an old favorite. Other times I want to be challenged by a thought-provoking ending. But like you, most of my favorites have happy endings :)

    @Daisy: LOL your line about them all doing "happy dances" totally made me smile! Yeah, I think people are divided about the HP ending. I like the idea of having closure but I had some issues with the way it was executed. Great points!

  8. I can take all of those endings that you mentioned. I think I need a variety of endings, just like I like to read a variety of genres. Mood certainly does have an effect on what book I decide to begin reading.

    What I don't like, are endings where NOTHING is resolved because the book is part of a series. I think even series books should have some sort of resolution of parts of the plot. Otherwise, the series should just be all one book.

  9. @Annette: Oh yes, books in series are a whole other can of worms! I definitely agree that there should be a resolution of a smaller story arc within the book, but still leave enough unanswered larger questions for the books to come. If it's all just leading towards the next book, then like you say - it might as well just be one long book!

  10. Interesting topic...I like them a bit ambiguous, but to use your word, only when it doesn't feel like a copout. Ambiguity leaves room for my imagination, and gives the illusion that characters live beyond the book. But appreciating ambiguous endings is like appreciating abstract art, and sometimes I'm just not in the mood for them. In that case, I like genuinely happy endings. Or realistically bittersweet. Really, as long as the ending fits I'm happy.

    (And you're welcome! I'm not surprised that the tree took you time to build--it's just so cool!)

  11. This is a great post! I loved reading your thoughts and all of the responses.

    I think I was sort of the opposite of you. When I was younger I went through a (weird) phase where I was reading all these really depressing books where one of the main characters usually died in the end (Lurlene McDaniel was one of my favorite authors then).

    Now that I'm older I find I want happy endings more and more. I don't even usually care if the ending is over the top perfect. I like when everything works out and everyone lives happily ever after.

    That said, I think each book has an ending that works best for it, and sometimes that is a happy ending, sometimes that is a sad ending, and sometimes it's an open ending. When the author picks the "right" ending for the book it just clicks and the book is stronger. I love happy endings, but there are just some books that don't work with that sort of ending.

    I'm glad you brought up Harry Potter's epilogue. I was so mad when I read that. What gives? All those kids and their names. Ugh, I didn't need to read that. The whole story was great because Rowling never hid from uncomfortable situations or tried to make things Mary Sue perfect. Then BAM! we get the ultimate fan fic epilogue of rainbows and puppy dogs. It just didn't feel like it was written by the same author it was so jarringly different. I'm over it now and I just try to pretend I never read it.

  12. What a cool question...I'd have to say that I've always loved books that end in such a way that I can see the characters carrying on from the last page...Books that end in such a way as to show us how this particular phase of a character's life has come to an end, but more is just around the corner...

  13. Fabulous post Danya! Since I've really gotten back into reading and started the blog, I've found my tastes have changed as well. Like you, I always wanted a happy ending before, if reading was an escape from the real world, I sure as heck wanted a happy escape! Now, I appreciate a sad ending though I still prefer a happy one. And I'm so used to the cliffhanger ending and having to wait for the next book in the series that it doesn't even bother me anymore, I've almost come to expect it. Since almost everything I read is part of a series, I run into a lot of those ambiguous endings:)

  14. I like endings that make me feel something: it doesn't matter if it's a happy ending or a tragic ending. If I don't fell anything it's because I didn't relate to anything in the book, so, that book was very boring to read.
    In the matter of vague endings, sometimes I get angry with them because I want to know what would happen to the characters, other times I appreciate them since they allow me to imagine my own end in my head. It really depends how the author handles it.

  15. @Sarah: I love your comparison of ambiguous endings to abstract art - I can totally see that! Abstract art is something that I can sometimes appreciate, depending on how it's done, but it's not a sure thing for me. Thanks for that analogy :D

    @Small Review: I remember the Lurlene McDaniel books! I think I went through a phase where I read several of those, but eventually they all began to seem the same to me (although I do remember there was one series relating to Amish culture that stuck out more in my mind). Yeah, the main character was practically guaranteed to die in the end!

    It seems like a common theme throughout this is the right fit of an ending for a book. Difficult to describe or define, but when you can tell when it just doesn't work with the rest of the story.

    And yes, I too just felt like the HP epilogue was written by somebody else! There was this switch in tone and mood that seemed very out of place, and after all the darkness that Harry has gone through, the happy-go-lucky nature of the epilogue seemed over the top.

  16. @Holly Schindler: Yes, definitely. I always like having some picture in my head of how the character's life might continue on after this part of their story.

    @Jenny: I must admit cliffhanger endings often still frustrate me, although I've come to expect it more when I go into a book knowing that it's part of a series. But when I think it's a stand-alone and then it turns out to be book 1 in a trilogy or something...then I'm all, "What???" at the cliffhanger ending :D

    @Lisa_sps: I agree, a lot depends on how the author handles an ambiguous ending. I think those are probably the most difficult to write in some ways!


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