Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Three Thoughts About Loose Ends

Three Thoughts About Loose Ends
By Brad R. Cook

Loose ends, those pesky forgotten subplots, or lost threads in a storyline. Instead of being loving tied up in beautiful bow at the end of the novel, loose ends dangle, angering readers who are left with questions and no answers.

Most often loose ends are the tragic consequence of editing, or perhaps a pantsing plotter who lost track of all the threads. Loose ends can frustrate a reader. We’ve all seen a movie with a scene that no longer makes sense, or read a book with a scene that you hope gets explained only to reach the end and never find out what it meant.

A famous example is from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a young engineer dies, and Scotty is very upset. There is even a poignant scene with Captain Kirk when the young man dies. In the theatrical release the audience is left wondering why everyone is so moved by the young man’s death. It isn’t until an extended cut that we get an earlier scene where we learn the young engineer is related to Scotty, thus making his death ever more tragic.

Here are my three thoughts about Loose Ends:

1 – Don’t do it!
If you can, try to avoid loose ends. Try to resolve all the subplots that are created. This will leave the reader without any questions at the end of the book. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t end the book with a cliff hanger, or a mystery for the sequel. What I’m referring to are unanswered questions within your narrative. By tying up all the loose ends, the story will appear complete, and not hap-hazard.

I also enjoy Zelda Fitzgerald’s quote – “It is the loose ends with which men hang themselves.”
Something for all writers to consider. 

2 – Make it a short story
If you find that your book does have a mystery left unanswered, it’s not the end of the world, in fact it can be an opportunity. I love short stories that are compendiums to novels. Not only is it a good way to give the reader more of the story, but they can be great for marketing. Loose ends, or unanswered mysteries, make for great short stories. The writer can go into more depth and provide a deeper tale that might have slowed down the novel.

TW Fendley who also writes for the Writers Lens did something similar with her book Zero Time. This isn’t quite a loose end, but in this great book, there are two jaguars at the beginning. In a subsequent short story Jaguar Hope, she gives a whole story to the jaguars. Not only does it answer questions readers had in Zero Time, but it’s a wonderful tale that brings more depth to her universe. Check them out here.

3 – Loose Ends are not Open Endings
I’m talking about unresolved subplots, not open endings, or endings that ask questions. Those are a whole different blog post. It is perfectly okay to end with a question. Open endings, or endings that ask the reader to think can be wonderful. They ignite the reader’s imagination. What happens next? What comes the day after happily ever after? What lies under the sunset? These are all good questions – what you don’t want to hear – Where did he get that gun? But what happened to that one character? But…but… what about the dog? Did the people get out before the building blew up?

Tie up the loose ends and satisfy your readers. They’ll thank you, and not hurl your book in frustration.

Do you have a favorite frustrating ending or unanswered subplot from a novel or movie? Let us know in the comments.

Brad R. Cook, author of the YA steampunk series, The Iron Chronicles. Iron Horsemen - and Iron Zulu -  A member of SCBWI, he currently serves as Historian of St. Louis Writers Guild after three and half years as its President. Learn more at, on Twitter @bradrcook, or on his blog Thoughts from Midnight on tumblr

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