Disclaimer: I have a particular taste in books. Just like everyone else. Things that make me throw a book at the wall – the furniture, out a window, from a moving train – others won’t mind about. Some things that I love may make another person reach for the flamethrowers. So, keep that in mind.
A problem I expect a lot of writers, new and experienced, have issue with is how to end a book. At least, judging by the conversations I’ve seen or taken part in. But quite honestly – how does one end a book? It is quite simple, really. You need to provide closure, and tie up all the loose ends. But things shouldn’t be too neat – so leave a couple of things open to interpretation or the imagination. Make sure it’s not anything to do with the character arcs – the readers will be left hanging, and that’s unsatisfying. Or the plot – all plot threads have to be tied up, or it’ll feel like there’s something missing.
Well … if you take the plot and characters out of the equation, what do you leave hanging? Questions of setting? Well, sure – as long as it’s not something vital to the plot. But if you’re not writing secondary world fantasy, that can be difficult to pull off, unless you’re talking about fictional groups of people in the novel, or the motivations of particular groups, and then aren’t we back onto characters? And that’s where it all gets tangled up again.
And this is even before you get into all the subtleties and issues of “Well, this was never explained in Book X and people still love it!”
I swear that phrase is the bane of my life when I’m trying to figure out my theories on writing.
Let’s start with the really obvious stuff. Don’t leave something vital to the plot unexplained. This means your characters have to have motives, particularly the ones involved in the book’s central conflict. Any setting issues (like how magic works) should be explained if they affect the plot (what spells a hero can and cannot do, to continue the example). Plot-relevant technology gets explained. That sort of thing.
For everything else, here’s the question I usually ask: Is this a leading question?
By that, I mean does leaving that question unanswered set off a chain of questions? Say you don’t know about the origins of a certain Evil Cult (to take an obvious example). Is that just a thing that fans can argue over? Or does it leave an obvious question open about how that cult relates to the main villain of the piece? That is, does not knowing the origin leave part of their motivation unexplained?
If you don’t know how a particular magic spell works, does that lead to questions as to how the whole system works – particularly of the kind that begin with the phrase “But why doesn’t he just”? Or is it just a piece of trivia?
If a question opens up a whole bevy of other questions, ones about the fundamental logic of the narrative or the setting, then you probably need to answer it.
Here’s where it gets interesting – once you’ve gotten past “necessary to understand the plot” and “necessary to not break suspension of disbelief”, everything else comes down to personal opinion. There’s definitely an art to leaving things unsaid. People have created wonderful worlds that people love to play in and write fanfic about and play RPGs of, based entirely on things that weren’t said in the original books or movies. It’s the fan-dance of literature. Reveal this, cover that. Open up the possibility of something deeper, and the fans dive in, but show them an abyss where knowledge should be and it eats at them. Sometimes, it’s better to give half an answer than either a full answer or no answer at all.
As usual, though, it’s all about personal preference, and learning by doing.
And the standard call for input – What are your thoughts on the subject? What unanswered questions really drive you up the wall, and what ones make you want to write fanfic, or reread the book for scraps of clues? What have you discovered in your own writing?