Resolutions: the payoff at the end of the story

I see that Sherwood Smith has a recent post at Book View Cafe on resolutions and the sorts of things that readers find unsatisfying when finishing a book.

Of course she notes that an ending that some readers find unsatisfying in a throw-the-book-across-the-room sort of way is perfectly fine with other readers. But one can still check out the general sorts of payoffs (or lack thereof) that tend to disappoint readers. And I totally agree that many (most) readers prefer an ending that provides “…that hitch of the breath, the lift of the heart that one gets from a satisfying resolution.” Yes. If you haven’t read Tolkein’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” linked from Smith’s post, you totally should.

For me, the most interesting insight in the post is here:

Here’s how I see the difference between the two: an emotional catharsis is primarily felt by the writer. A dramatic catharsis is also an emotional catharsis, but it is felt by the reader.

That’s something to think about.

As an example, Smith notes: The author might feel that tremendous weight of stress writing the details of that mega-battle, but a reader, who has followed the series faithfully through several previous megabattles, blinks through the superlatives, and might even begin to skim. The reader’s emotion doesn’t match the writer’s.

This is precisely true for me: I would be one of the readers just skimming through that immense battle.

Then we get a good bit of discussion in the rest of the post and the comments about what actually works best in providing a satisfying resolution: the protagonist gaining agency or insight, the tying-up of loose ends (for mysteries), the male and female leads living happily ever after (romances), and so on.

I — and some commenters — also prefer a story where the resolution offers cosmic justice. As Pilgrimsoul said in an August 16th comment: I want the good to end happily and the bad unhappily. Exactly. For me, saccharine endings aren’t necessarily great, everything working out too perfectly isn’t ideal, but basically I want the good guys to wind up in a better place than they started, the world to end up better off because of the events of the story, and the bad guys, if any, to actually be defeated.

All this has made me think of various stories that did NOT provide resolutions that satisfied me, in very different ways:

1. IN THE WOODS by Tana French. For me, this beautifully written book failed utterly at the end because a) it is supposed to be a mystery, but left very important loose ends just flopping around; and b) the protagonist screwed up his life thoroughly and never got it unscrewed; and most of all, c) there was no cosmic justice. The (very bad) bad guy got away with the murder and went off to no doubt be completely vicious elsewhere.

For me, this made Tana Frence a one-book-only author. If someone offered me another book by her for free, I would not just walk away, but run.

2. HOMEWARD BOUND by Harry Turtledove. Here we have an example of a lack of resolution that is just . . . a lack of resolution. No emotional catharsis. No dramatic catharsis. Nothing. Just . . . nothing.

This doesn’t make me run away from Turtledove. It makes me ask myself what in the world he (or his editor) could have been thinking.

Sherwood Smith gently points out how readers sometimes feel like they know what was in the author’s head: Then there’s the reader telepathy into the writer’s real motivation: “Obviously the author was sick of the whole thing and just phoned in that ending.” Well, from time to time one certainly does get that exact impression. It’s books like Turtledove’s which most promote that feeling. It feels exactly like he just lost interest, threw a period in at a random point, and said, “There! That’s the end!”

3. Live, Die, Repeat. I really enjoyed this movie! But the ending was . . . just okay for me. This is an example of a resolution that seemed . . . a little too pat. A little too happy, with all of the cost the good guys paid for the ending just . . . erased. As far as I’m concerned, this made it difficult to see either a dramatic catharsis or an emotional catharsis in the resolutiion. Don’t ask me what I’d have preferred, though. An unhappy ending, no, definitely not.

In contrast, let me just say that I consider the last line of Patricia McKillip’s THE BOOK OF ATRIX WOLFE to offer one of the all-time great endings for any story ever.


I will just add that you can’t skip ahead and read that one line, though. The impact comes from the story.

So. Have you all read anything lately which had an ending you particularly loved or hated?

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16 thoughts on “Resolutions: the payoff at the end of the story”

  1. Recently? I’ll have to think about it. Perhaps A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn. I loved the book, and the ending was, I think, fitting.

    But for a beautiful, memorable ending that I read years and years ago, there is Little, Big by John Crowley. I really should read that again.

  2. I’ve always found Riddle Master’s last line or so potent, but that’s not a new read. … hmm… recently…

    the ending of Saunder’s MARCH NORTH, wherein much has changed politically, and people who started the book being treated warily have been welcomed more or less as friends. Still working on the sequel as I have to be reasonably awake to follow it and haven’t been. Rereading CJC’s Ealdwood stories instead.

    Oh, the ending of FORTRESS (itEoT). It’s so very Tristen.

  3. Yes, The Dark is Rising! I wasn’t thinking about endings I really dislike, but that’s pretty near the top. I read another book with a similar resolution many years ago, but I’ve forgotten the name. Maybe just as well.

  4. The ending that made me the angriest was probably Jan Siegel’s trilogy (Prospero’s Children, The Dragon-Charmer and Witch’s Honour).

    Spoilers if you haven’t read it:

    After the whole trilogy follow the main character as she first tries to deny her magic, then gradually comes to accept it & understand how to use it, at the end she makes a bargain where she gets to drink from the River Lethe & forget all the events of all 3 books, including that magic even exists. Ruined the whole trilogy for me.

  5. SarahZ, I haven’t read it and now it’s definitely less likely to appear on my TBR pile. That’s a lot like the ending of The Dark is Rising series, isn’t it? I certainly agree with Robert and Andrea about that ending.

    That kind of “And then they forgot all about it” or “And then they woke up and it was all a dream,” or any sort of ending where the characters’ journey is fundamentally negated at the end … I really have a hard time seeing how the author can feel like that works? Truly, it baffles me.

    Now I want to go and look at the last line of The Riddle-Master trilogy… but if I do, I will probably wind up re-reading the whole thing…

    I’ve heard Little, Big is really something. Someday I need to actually pick that one up.

  6. I remember picking up the first book of Siegel’s trilogy, but I never went farther than that one, I remember being irritated by the book. Sounds like it was a good decision.

    I went and read the original post and zeroed in on the ‘earning’ portion of endings

    . What I’ve run into most recently have been either perfectly good, but bland earned endings, but a few months back, when the Teen had me read a manga with her, we were both unhappy with the ending because it wasn’t earned. Had no buildup, was too happy – no shadows, and the world of the story wasn’t like that – The ending also blatantly broke the world building. It still bugs me when I think of it. And since then said Teen has written more than one fanfiction showing what should/could have happened (with variations) instead and I’m the first reader/designated questioner, I have had to think about it. Too bad, too, up until then it was fascinatingly twisty. Made CJC look straightforward.

    A lot of people don’t like GGKay’s endings (he’s got another book coming next year, too! Yay, new McKillip and Kays. This one is set in Europe again, apparently.) I remember seeing a lot of unhappiness over the ending of TIGANA, and LIONS. I thought they were fitting- earned, even – especially the former’s, but they didn’t work for others.

  7. The ending of Martha Wells’ “The Siren Depths” rounded off all three books satisfactorily. And totally, totally earned.

  8. I find Smith’s words on the Scouring of the Shire particularly resonate with me. I read LoTR after watching the movies, and then of course, I went back and watched the movies again, which severely highlighted their differences. And on re-watching, the end of LoTR just fell so flat compared to the written work. To relish that dramatic catharsis, I had to re-read at least the end of the trilogy (and once, I even re-read all three and savored all the details that the movies missed). Yum.

    I felt the same as you at the end of Live, Die, Repeat. It made no sense that he suddenly skipped back in time to the day before instead of morning of the same day. Threw me for a loop after such an interesting concept and execution.

    Something I noticed recently is that I feel most satisfied when there’s an epilogue. The story can conclude without one and still have that dramatic catharsis via a paragraph or two, but more words + distance in time from the last action/event carry additional weight and satisfaction. I can’t remember what book I read that triggered this, although I do remember I didn’t like its ending.

  9. Kooch, I agree about The Siren Depths, except that “The Dark Earth Below” novella in the second novella collection ties off the series BETTER. Also, I am hoping to see familiar characters reappear in the new Raksura novels

  10. Elaine, I can see that if you want a happy ending, then LIONS in particular is iffy. But I thought the ending was absolutely required by the story. I will say, now and then Kay writes one that is too grim for me throughout, regardless of the ending!

  11. Oh, and The Scouring of the Shire is one of my favorite parts of TLotR. I love the movies . . . mostly . . . but I go back to the books and read the Scouring of the Shire after watching the last movie.

    And I also love epilogues. I appreciate the emotional winding-down.

  12. Ditto on the epilogues. I think I really noticed it in the last book of the Sharing Knife, how much I enjoyed that little soothing glimpse from a year or so later’: yes, their lives are going ordinarily forward, they have some time to enjoy their family life in an ordinary human ups-and-down but mostly positive way. After all the horrible things they went through, I really wanted that for them!
    Then I loved the Gratuitous Epilogue for the Touchstone series, and concluded that I really love that sense of closure and life returning to normal, and people getting a chance to have some ordinary life that’s going reasonably well.

    Then I read some books where the writer used the epilogue to set up a teaser for their next book, and that irritated me quite a bit. Hey, I’m reading this epilogue for the sense of fulfillment and closure! I hate cliffhangers, won’t read books that end in them until the resolution is available, and now this writer is turning that expectation of a sense of fullfilment upside down, ending the story itself at a reasonable point, and tacking on the teaser/cliffhanger in the epilogue. For me, that was a serious betrayal of expectations; I definitely won’t read her epilogues again, and the books themselves aren’t on auto-buy because I want to check the ending before I buy.
    Adding a bonus chapter from the next book at the end is OK, if it’s clearly marked as such – then I know to expect the teaser effect and can avoid reading that unless the following book is already available, as it’s not part of this story I’m reading.

  13. Agreeing with Elaine re: Riddle-master and Homeward Bounders.

    One of my favorites is the kind of open-ended that I think often annoys people, but which I love: I CAPTURE THE CASTLE. And for me, the endings of Code Name Verity and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell are both very satisfying even though neither is exactly happy.

    (Actually, I did a whole post about this for one of the Top Ten Tuesday topics awhile back:

  14. Thanks for the link, Maureen! I agree completely about both CNV and JS&MN — although for the latter, part of it was that the whole ending just *sweeps* you along after that long, long, long buildup.

    I really need to re-read I CAPTURE THE CASTLE.

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