I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.
This month we’re discussing YA, and I’ve decided to focus on contemporary YA. Several of the contemporary novels I’ve read recently have had open or ambiguous endings. Sometimes I thought this was done really well, while others I felt cheated as a reader. Every reader is different, but here’s what I’ve learned about what works and doesn’t work for me when it comes to open endings.
Not everything has to be 100% resolved in the end. Characters should feel like they had lives before the start of the novel, and they should feel like their lives will continue beyond the last page. As a reader, I like imagining what will come next. A couple great examples I read recently both involved the main characters navigating the uncertainty of their senior year of high school, worrying about where/whether to go to college, what would happen to their relationships after graduation, and so on. In both cases, we saw most of that uncertainty resolved as the characters made their choices for the next year and all went their separate ways. There was still the question of what happens next, will these friends stay together or drift apart, will this long-distance romance last. But the main sources of the characters’ frustrations — their insecurities about their plans for the next year, and their conflicts with their parents — were resolved.
That said, all the major plot threads should be resolved at the end. Not everything has to be tied up in a neat bow, but the narrative can’t just stop after something big happens that results in a change in the character(s) or their circumstances. Good stories start with a question — will John survive the zombie apocalypse? Will Gabi convince her boss to give her that promotion? Will the Goldberg children be all right after losing their mother (and the financial stability her income provided)? — and that question should be answered by the end of the novel. We don’t need to see all the Goldberg kids in successful careers/marriages at the end of the book, but we need to see them on a path to success at the very least. (Or on a path to total destruction, if that’s the kind of book you’re writing.) If John has a fling with Raul while battling zombies, it’s okay to leave their romance in limbo, but we need to know whether John will survive the zombies. Readers will feel cheated if they reach the end of a novel and the story question isn’t answered.
How do you feel about open endings? What works or doesn’t work for you? What stories would you recommend that do this well?