Loose Ends

Life is all about uncertainties. Fiction, on the other hand, is required to make sense, or your readers throw things (like your book) at you. I was contemplating this as I was driving today, loose ends, and the raveling up of said threads, taking the untidy things and tucking them neatly into the tapestry of the story.

My problem is, as I’m getting ready to write the third book in a series, that I need to make a ‘bible’ for the series, which is going to include things like physical descriptions and setting notes for the world. It will also include a list of dangling plot threads. Some of them will become the central plots of the final book, as minor incidents come back to bite my protagonists on the butts. But I don’t want to wrap all of them up. I’d just as soon leave a few.

In real life, there are a lot of loose ends and untidy things. You might meet someone while traveling, hit it off, and when you both separate at your destination, never speak again. I have fond memories of folks who were dear friends of the family when I was a kid – Jim taught me how to ride, and my Dad how to bust broncs – but they dropped off the face of the earth twenty years ago. I think about them from time to time, and wonder. Life has loose ends, so why can’t my stories have a few?

I know that readers don’t like to be left hanging. If you introduce a character, they expect that person to play a role in the story. And this is so, most of the time. Especially in a short story. But if life is a stage, there are an awful lot of bit characters who merely walk across the stage from time to time. Of course, sometimes one will linger and insist they need a speaking role, but that just richens the story.

On the other hand, by leaving some loose ends, I let the reader have room for their imagination to stroll down the garden path with me, making up possibilities of what might be there, in the uncharted waters off the page. (Good grief, my metaphors are out of control today). So I am trying to strike a balance between too much, and just enough. I don’t want to tie them all up neatly, what if I want to come back to the world I’ve built again? A whole world is full of possibilities. You can’t bundle it up and present it with a bow, there are always messy parts to clean up.

Right now I don’t even have time to re-read and make notes. This is just going onto the list of what needs to be done, as I am working on writing two other projects, alternating. I got really blocked on the SF, and have been stressing over whether pandemic stories are overdone, and should I even bother? So I’m working on something completely different, which will come out under an open penname, as I don’t want readers to pick it up expecting Fantasy and get the mundane. Or vice versa.

So here’s the question, how many loose ends can I get away with? Do you, as readers, prefer there to be no dangling bits to distract you at the end of the tale wondering what happened?

17 comments

  1. I leave loose ends. Sometimes they’re the hook for me to begin the story’s sequel (a series of unexplained horrific deaths in book one that are only peripherally about the main plot, but that are resolved in book two, then feature to an extent in book three of my Wizards series. But that book three has a thread, and a fan jumped on it and suggested I write the next book using that thread as an intro but setting the new book in Australia! Go figure.
    When the story is told, quit.
    Not all threads need to be wrapped into a ball. Leave one out for the cat to play with! 😀
    Or, quoting myself in the final line from Hands: Always leave ’em wanting more.

  2. For some reason, this reminded me of the end of I Dare, over in the Liaden Universe. This is more or less the fifth book in the series, wrapping up a major arc. The big bad has been handed a major setback, but the family has also been told they have to leave their home planet. Still, it’s the climax and resolution, right? And in the last chapter, someone we have never seen before walks in and says, “My father said if I was in trouble, I should talk to you.” So they look at this stranger and ask, “What’s the problem?” To which she answers, “It’s complicated.” And the book ended! It took two more novels just to get us all up to speed on who this new character was, and what her problems were…

    I think the main arc of the story needs to be wrapped up, or at least fairly solidly give us a climax and resolution, or I will throw things. But the series, the continuing world around that story, needs those other threads, dangling in the breeze and tempting us to keep reading. Too nicely wrapped, and the editorial scissors show. Too loose, and we can’t see the story for the frizzy split ends.

  3. The loose ends are why I’ve gotten so many requests to expand Sparrowind from just a novella / novelette to a series of books.

    But, perhaps for your own sake, something of a world-reference book would be useful – something like the Eddingses’ The Rivan Codex, which was fun to read long after the series had ended – and included to some extent, meta stories and info.

  4. Wrapping up everything isn’t possible. Well, maybe for very short, simple tales. But so long as you wrap up the major one, and have some sort of satisfactory staging of others it’ll leave the reader satisfied. In many series, there’s an over arching problem that doesn’t get solved until the end of the series. That just means, IMO, that each book needs a serious (possibly related, possibly not) secondary problem that does get resolved.

    The Honor Harrington series is like this. Sometimes it take two books to solve a secondary problem, but the over arching conflict between star nations is always very evident, even when the main problem is a personal vendetta, unconnected to the war.

  5. I enjoy stories where the author leaves enough loose ends to let me imagine life continuing more-or-less happily for the characters. For example, at the end of _Hero and the Crown_, McKinley wrote, ” . . . for the not quite mortal part of her did sleep, that she might love her country and her husband.” OK, so I know interesting things will continue to happen in the future, BUT for now everything’s tidied up and done.

  6. One of the reviews of my first novel observed that it had “more loose ends than the Flying Spaghetti Monster”.

    I took that as a complement, actually. (And that particular reader did go on to read and review my next two.) I envisioned my series from the beginning as an open-ended sandbox–not simply a linear path between point A and point B, but an entire cosmos. I want my reader wondering what is lurking on all of the paths not taken. I set out to create a universe with a lot of room, one that would let me keep exploring it for several novels.

    I did find myself needing to set up a spreadsheet for my characters (and I am reminded that I need to update it with the info from my last book.) I have the character’s full name, the way that she or he is referred to in the text (many of my characters have nicknames or aliases), physical description, the character’s sub-species, the first appearance (book and page number) and the character’s currant status (if dead, the book and page number of the death scene.) I also have a n opened ended “notes” column for any important information that doesn’t fit in any other column.

    As simple as it is, that spreadsheet has become an invaluable tool as I start book number four. I list every character who I name, and quite a few that I simply mention in passing, and I often go back and check for old characters that I can bring back into the story.

  7. As others have said “It depends”.

    Little “loose ends” are true to life and are expected.

    Major “loose ends” (like strong hints of a Major enemy waiting out there) are another matter unless the author intends to bring the “Major enemy” to the forefront in a later books.

    An author has to leave the reader wanting more.

    As one author showed us “even ending the world” leaves openings for stories about events happening before the author killed off his world.

    Note, the author I referred to is Michael Moorcock. He destroyed Elric of Melniboné and Elric’s world but later went back to write other stories about Elric. [Smile]

    1. Some loose ends are just fine, for speculating and demonstrating your world has complexity and a future. Others – especially the well-developed red herring subplot – can be kinda infuriating if one is not to know what really happened with ’em.

  8. I like to write my stories so the reader knows the characters had lives before the book starts and will continue to have lives after it ends. And that can provoke certain readers who really want to know all that, and how that culture came to exist, and… (Got a request for TWO prequels once, because of that.) It’s a compliment, because the reader thinks I know all that–and they want to know too 😉

    I do try to play fair in finishing up any plot threads *the characters* have put work in on the page. If they cared about it for more than a scene or two, yeah, I think I have to give some kind of resolution. But a casual mention of Character A having an ex-wife in every port? Nope, that’s just backstory and a funny.

  9. I like a few loose ends, nothing major – just a small imitation of life. I do want the major and minor plot arcs resolved, but that doesn’t mean every single person, place, or thing has to meet a happy or just end.

  10. The best use of dangling threads that comes to my mind was the end of Grand Central Arena. It closed off main question of that book, left no active threads wiggling, and clearly “finished” that story, but at the same time it opened up wide vistas of possibilities on what could happen next. And I started to spend hours daydreaming ways the story could go. I could hardly wait for Spheres of Influence to come out.
    Pixie Noir also did a good job of leaving me impatient for Trickster Noir.
    Dragon’s Ring also finished the story, while leaving me wanting Dog and Dragon.
    Wen Spencer is also a wonder at leaving a reader satisfied that a book ended a story, while being very very impatient for the next installment. She also is superb at chumming with snippets.
    Hmm. I guess I should stop going down the list of favorites. It’s long.

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