Forum Friday: Unsatisfactory Endings


Has the ending of a book ever just made you wanna scream, cry, destroy sandcastles, or hoard Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches in your room and never come out again? You’ll never get those 7 hours back! Why did you think it was a good idea to read this book? How did it ever end up on bookshelves in the first place? HOWWWW?

Hyperbole aside, I think most of us have read at least one book whose ending left us wanting, wondering, frustrated, confused, or otherwise unsatisfied. However, I am of the opinion that most unsatisfactory experiences can be learned from, and an unsatisfactory novel ending is no exception. That said:

Have you ever read a book whose ending left you unsatisfied? What made it unsatisfactory– and if the pen were in your hands, what might you have done differently? (Please note this is asked in the spirit of readers and writers thoughtfully critiquing and coming away with something– not to book bash unnecessarily.)

28 thoughts on “Forum Friday: Unsatisfactory Endings

  1. Time Traveler’s Wife. I loved this book…until the end when the author starts going into way too much detail about why the guy could time travel. Never so bored and disappointed with the ending of a book. Especially a book that, for over 200 pages, I thought was going to make my top ten list.

    • Ooh, thank you for this response! I like that you point out the weight that an ending can bear in overall impression, even as a small part of a book that the reader otherwise loved… Something for writers to take note of!

      Incidentally, own book is power-driven (“Shifters” can manipulate their appearance), and the way I had it ending in the first version started to go into why. This reaffirms my decision to change it!

  2. I was so so painfully disappointed with the ending of ‘Voice of the Gods’, which is the final book in Trudi Canavan’s ‘Age of Five’ trilogy. Not wanting to give away too many spoilers just in case anyone wants to read/is reading the series BUT the big, epic battle that all three books have been building towards just doesn’t happen. Both armies are standing across from one another while their leaders go off to discuss terms, events happen during this discussion and as a result, they declare peace. Now…I know that sounds like a good thing and I’m a sucker for a happy ending but even I felt a bit let down when there wasn’t any mass bloodshed. I guess it has just become the norm with fantasy trilogies to expect the forces of good and evil to clash once and for all at the end and without this final conflict I was left feeling a little cheated.

    • This is a brilliant point and reinforces the significance of STAKES. What’s the point of conflict without consequence? And what makes it even more interesting is that happy endings are often successful, and, as you say, many of us (myself included) enjoy them– but it is still possible to walk away TOO unscathed. Perhaps that’s its own separate lesson: if a story spends three books building up to a battle, the battle had better happen!

      Thank you for your thoughtful response!

  3. I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb. An absolutely brilliant novel that I will never forget ruined in the final five pages by the need for an utterly ridiculous happy ending. It is the greatest exhibit of why you don’t always have to have a happy ending to make a book. I still love the book, but I have no need for those final pages.

    • Ah, I think this is one of the classic issues with endings: the happy ending where the happy ending does not belong. I’m glad that in this case it at least didn’t spoil the rest of the book for you! Still, though. An important pitfall for authors to mind.

  4. I didn’t read the book that inspire the film, but I found the movie “Silver Linings Playbook” to be absolutely fantastic… until the end. The Hollywood happy ending totally negated an otherwise authentic depiction of one man’s struggle with Bipolar.

    • The unwanted happy ending seems to be a recurring issue (see comment above). And in a situation like the one you describe, I can really appreciate how inappropriate a happy ending would be. That wouldn’t just frustrate me as a reader/viewer…I don’t think I’d be satisfied to *write* the hollywood ending. It just wouldn’t be true to the story!

  5. I’ve seen varying degrees of a certain issue in many Fantasy novels I’ve read. The grand, massive and epic clash between the forces of good and evil has always made me cringe with increased displeasure as I turn page after page near the ending chapters. I cringe because I know that one out of three things will most likely happen.
    1. The Magic Fix-it-all-spell-or-solution-prophecy and happily ever after
    2. “At least no one important died”
    3. interesting female leads end up hooking up with the male MC (or male side-kicks with female main characters), almost as if though they were some kind of reward for all the hard work and misery they’ve all been through. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against romance but it would be nice to see something other than Hero-rewarding fluff.

    I feel a blog-post coming out of this for me so I’ll stop here, but yeah, lack of consequences. If there’s a grand war between the two forces of that magnitude I’d expect that at least half of the world got blown up in the process – along with a few interesting characters.

    • There are certainly standard endings, aren’t there? And I absolutely agree: major battles, conflicts, and obstacles should have proportionate consequences. Thanks for responding, Fredrik, and I look forward to seeing your post!

  6. I wonder about trilogys. I read a really good sci fi Book 1 recently where the protagonists get into many scrapes – but you know they’re gonna survive at least until Book 3.
    I realise now that, in my historical novels which run consecutively, I wrote a happy ending in Book 1 but had it all come crashing down early in Book 2. A good trick I think, though I didn’t realise it at the time of writing.

    • Thinking in terms of trilogies is interesting, isn’t it? We start to notice things as writers that weren’t perhaps fully attuned to as readers… And it is always rewarding when you look back at something you’ve written, given distance and time, and can say ‘Hey, that really WORKED! Well done, me.’ 😉 Perhaps humorously, what you describe in your historical books (ending Book 1 on a happy note, but having that stasis crumble at the start of Book 2) reminds me of the Back to the Future movies. Probably because I saw the first one again recently.

  7. Still working hard on that ending huh? I cant think of any I hated right now, but a couple I really liked that were part of a series were: the fellowship of the ring and the first book in the aegypt series. Does the option for a cliffhanger exist for your book? This post was no help I realize that. Sorry. Good luck with your ending. Try thinking about it in the shower, that usually works.

    • I’ve got it all planned out– just have to finish the rewriting part 😉 The first version I had sort of ended on a cliffhanger (driving conflict resolved, but the MC left in a dangerous place and up against a worse enemy than the one before), but decided against that. As a debut novel and author I really don’t know that I could get away with a cliffhanger ending– and, having given it some thought, decided it would be better to have an ending between conflicts rather than in the middle of one.

      Interestingly, LOTR was one of the first trilogies I thought of and started looking at it as a reference. Not very relevant to Shifters, but anything that’s been successful for so long probably has something to teach about successful story structure!

      Thanks for your response and good wishes, Tony!

  8. I’d like to say that a cliff-hanger ending doesn’t matter that much when you query, but I’m not sure that’s true. One agent loved my ms for the most part, and I was really excited. I thought she was going to be THE ONE for me. It was going to happen. I was excited for days, waiting for that offer.

    Then I finally got an email from her. She called my writing, “woefully underdeveloped and incomplete,” and said on Twitter (I knew it was about me) how the biggest mistake new writers make is forcing a cliffhanger because, “there’s no second or third book if there’s no first.” Double ouch.

    Ultimately, I did get an agent on the same draft of that ms, but I wonder if I’d have gotten one faster if I wrote a more “complete” book with a conclusive ending. I think it’s a good call to revise Shifters to have a more satisfying ending, even if you still are planning a trilogy. You’re one of the smartest writers I know because you never shy away from a revision. So many people type “The End” and then are desperate to query. You’ve been so methodical about it, I know you’ll get an agent!

    • Oh man, Aubrey– is that verbatim? “Woefully underdeveloped?” What an arrow! Maybe it’s just that modifying adverb, but OW and wow– even as feedback that may have been intended as helpful, that does not strike me as the most tactful (or professional) wording. I’m glad you found the right agent after that! Out of curiosity, did your agent suggest any revisions to make a more “complete” ending after (or before) offering representation?

      Thank you for sharing your experience, and also for the words of encouragement! It would be lovely if one or another agent thinks similarly once I finally get to submitting 😉

      On Mon, Jul 22, 2013 at 8:05 AM, The Read Room

      • The “woefully underdeveloped” part is, indeed, verbatim. I’m not gonna lie, it was kind of crippling. I called out of work that day, something I NEVER did. It doesn’t sting anymore of course, and now I’m actually really glad she didn’t offer! I can’t imagine working with anyone that blunt.

        The agent I signed with it much more tactful and pleasant. I don’t recall her mentioning the ending being a problem during our initial conversation, though we did discuss making the book a standalone before submissions. Ultimately, I added a bit more detail to make it more satisfying but still left a lot of loose ends.

        Of course, there’s another element to this story, and that’s that it didn’t sell. However, I think that was more to do with the fact that editors found the end too predictable, not too wild. So, now I’m revising again, and I’ve decided that I want the book to be a standalone. But I don’t think that had anything to do with it not selling. Long story short, I think it’s fine if you’re planning a trilogy.

        • Power to you, Aubrey. A book (especially a first one, since it includes the quest for the agent) is a long and mountainous journey with what I can only anticipate is a lot of trial and error, scaling, turning back, and having to find/make alternate routes…and it seems like even if one reaches the top, the view may be very different than what one originally expected. You and your book have clearly traveled a long and defining distance…you should be proud!

          As someone farther along the journey than myself, I really appreciate you sharing your experience! Thank you again. All the best with your standalone– I’m wishing you well and look forward to seeing good news 🙂

          On Tue, Jul 23, 2013 at 8:25 AM, The Read Room

  9. I was painfully frustrated with the Hunger Games second and third novel endings. The second novel was just… It wasn’t a complete novel. It entered into an entire plot that was never completed, until halfway through the third novel and by that point it just annoyed the hell out of me. That is particularly my frustration.

    Even if you have a series or trilogy and you do have arcs that will span multiple books, the way to make your book feel… satisfying at the end is to make sure that when you start the book, with whatever plot you are running with, you need to finish that plot by the end of that book. Even if it means you introduce plot elements for another book somewhere along the way you still finish off the MAIN plot you started in your original book with that book. If you don’t it just never feels complete.

    I have a lot of overarching plots in my series, but I still conclude the main plot of the first book IN the first book, along with a couple of side plots, and a few side plots continue into the next book, but because I crafted the first novel ending to account for the original main arc it actually feels finished. You may WANT to read more, but you don’t NEED to read more to feel satisfied.

    • Thanks for your reply, Jordan. Your thoughts echo pretty much what I have concluded about having a sense of resolution in the first book (but possibly still leaving some loose ends/unanswered questions– “overarching plots” to carry forward– as long as the main conflict is resolved). Still need to read the second and third books in the Hunger Games series for myself!

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