Ever get to the end of a good book, your ready to take a breath after finally reaching the happy–or maybe just satisfying or unexpected–ending but then…
You feel a nagging knot between your shoulder blades. Something is up. That one plot point. The character who mysteriously vanished midway through the story, who would’ve had all the answers to solve the protagonist’s problems, is just gone. That character’s companions would’ve gone to look for him/her but the plot and its resolution distracted everyone. Or maybe a character started exhibiting weird preternatural powers, different from everyone else. You know, as the reader, that there’s an explanation to his/her new found, different abilities. The other characters know too. However, the plot and the events leading up to the big smack down in the third-to-last chapter kept everyone too busy to solve the mystery.
That’s what’s bothering you.
Some novels have loose ends. Loose ends that drive readers nuts. Readers want to know! How could the author leave threads hanging?! Like some hangnail that no matter how persistent a person chews, they just can’t snag that annoying distraction.
For some people, the loose ends are unacceptable. Loose ends can ruin a book. Three stars instead of five. Yeah, the book was good but it could’ve been GREAT if not for…
I think the tolerability of loose ends depends on how crucial the dangling thread is to the plot as a whole tapestry. If there are a couple of niggling points, like what happened to so-and-so or I thought they would explain this aspect of the magic and why couldn’t that solve everything, those won’t/don’t diminish my enjoyment of the story. And as a writer I know how important leaving loose ends is to fandom. Allowing fans to speculate and discuss, keeping the stories alive.
Last year I read “The Autumn Republic” by Brian McClellan, the last book in the Powder Mage Trilogy. (Great series by the way. Wonderful characters with depth and purpose. Interesting magic system. Lots of good twists.) In the book one of the main protagonists goes to question a university professor the reader met earlier on in the story, he wants to know what’s happened to city, specifically about an antagonist who’s laid siege to the city in a passive bid for the head minister position of the newly established republic. Yeah, if you’re going to take over a city, don’t just break down the door and wave a gun in everyone’s faces… knock on the door, wave ‘hi’, and declare I’m going to run for political office and subvert control from y’all legally. It’s a hostile takeover in a fantasy world. Cool beans. Anyway, the university professor the protagonist is looking for is missing, fled in the night. The professor is an near-immortal magician with tons of deadly knowledge. He just up and leaves. Our protagonist thinks this is suspecious and worries. But the protagonist doesn’t have time to find the professor so the where did he go, why did he leave is left out there hanging. Later it becomes obvious why the magician professor vacated the occupied city. But where he went and will he be back are unknown at the close of the trilogy. How does this impact the plot? Who knows. Not a big deal though. The professor is not needed to resolve the final conflict.
Another loose end in “The Autumn Republic” is the issue of another character, Nila. She’s a former laundress who’s discovered she’s a powerful magician, the most powerful in a couple generations. Thing is, magicians in the Powder Mage world need special gloves in order to perform sorcery. Nila doesn’t need no stinkin’ gloves. She’s also able to shrug off magic-dampening barriers. Why is she different? Who knows. Does her uniqueness matter to solving the final conflict? Not really.
Bottom line, “The Autumn Republic” is a damn fine book regardless of the loose ends. The series is bad-ass. Also, McClellan is going to write another trilogy and might tie up some of his loose ends.
My point is this: real life is full of plot threads. People come in and out of our lives without reason. Conflicts like how to deal with a car crash or how to get a job, could be solved with those people or with certain knowledge we lack and/or should have. That doesn’t mean our story doesn’t go on, that life’s subplots are not solved in fulfilling and meaningful ways.
Life has loose ends. The I wish I had’s…
That’s not to say loose ends in the story can’t diminish the enjoyment from a story. More specifically, I think aborted arcs in stories are the real hangnails. Like untied show laces, these type of loose ends can trip up a story. I’ll admit that. Wait… wasn’t this story about…
I’m reminded of Heroes. You know, the show about the superheroes and the Save the Cheerleader Save the World tagline? First season was awesome. Great show. Tons of promise. After that, the show introduced this concept about 12 mega villains that everyone was freaking out over. The Petrelli patriarch comes back, starts stealing powers, and then the previous arc is dropped. That Villains arc was built up. This cadre of evil was supposed to be more dangerous than super serial killer Sylar. Nothin’. Everything kinda went downhill from there. Really disappointing. There’s an entire list of aborted arcs in TV, film, literature, et cetera over at TV Tropes (click here).
The main take away here is that, loose ends are part of life and why not part of stories? As long as the loose ends don’t affect the pace and conflict of the story, then a couple of hangnails to gnaw on are great for discussion. This is how fan forums were born. When entire story arcs are thrown out or if key pieces of information are not provided, that can derail a story.
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