I don’t know if I’m a particularly picky reader, but I do like a novel to have some sort of resolution. It doesn’t have to be a traditional happy ending – though, as a writer, I always end up with my characters looking forward hopefully. But that’s my quirk.
I can take bereavement, despair or the end of the world in other people’s books. Even enjoy them in a Having a Good Cry sort of way.
What I can’t be doing with, is to turn the page and find that there’s no more book. And in the last few months I’ve found that happening more and more.
Is a Resolution purely a Matter of Taste?
Taste? Well, it may be. I recognise the lack of a resolution by the effect – often visceral – that it has on me.
My disappointment had physical manifestations in several cases. I threw my Kindle out of bed once. I certainly thumped two physical books down with a loud harrumph.
(Companion cat has started to watch me warily when I start reading a book.)
The unresolved endings left me feeling restless, unsettled and bad tempered.
The books were from different genres (literary, mystery, romance, fantasy and “women’s fiction”) but all had been well-reviewed. One, I believe, was a prize-winner. Maybe other people felt that the stories were satisfactorily resolved? Or maybe resolution was less important to them.
What do I Mean by a Resolution?
I think that I mean coming to a place of rest. It doesn’t have to be a marriage, though it often is. But whether it’s marriage or reconciling an old dispute, or surviving the death of a loved one, the resolution has to embrace change, and acknowledged change, at that.
The important questions that the novelist has raised about these characters must have been answered. The characters themselves must know, if not all the answers, at least enough to give them a good night’s sleep and fresh start on the morrow.
An example from my own genre, romance, is what a beloved editor used to call the But I Thought You Loved Carlotta Moment.
Story is about conflict. Romantic stories are often about the lovers’ individual internal conflict as much as their on-going social duel: sexual attraction versus the survival instinct; old loyalties versus new; pride versus prejudice.
To resolve all of this the characters have to come to a point where they admit their own feelings to themselves and then – deep breath, big step – to each other.
It’s a long process. In Pride and Prejudice it only starts with Mr Darcy’s post proposal letter. By the end we have to feel that there are no crucial deal-breakers still extant.
And in Chapter 60 Lizzie grills Mr Darcy on the course of his feelings for her and we get the perfect resolution.
“You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner.”
“A man who had felt less, might.”
Let’s face it. ‘”Will you marry me?” “Yes” The End’ just doesn’t cut the mustard. Though it may well be more true to life, it just isn’t satisfying at the end of a novel. Well, to me.
Unresolved Story: the Curse of the Series?
Now three of the books that I have cast from me with curses were the middle volumes of a series. I have read many series from Stephanie Plum to Adam Dalgleish and it is perfectly possible to give one story a decent resolution with uncountable novels still to come.
It is also possible to bugger up the resolution in a single book, possibly for devious literary reasons. Or maybe just because the author can’t bear to close the door or any of his inventions and resorts to a multiverse. (Can you hear my teeth gnashing?)
I make three possible endings in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”, none of which takes Sarah OR Charles OR anybody else to a place of rest, whether hopeful or not.
The book has many qualities and I have re-read some favourites bits many times. But never, never, that footling cop-out Hamlet-hesitating end.
As a writer, deep in a story and heading towards The End, it’s quite difficult to remember to shake out and tie up all the tangled threads you’ve started during the weaving. I struggle with it all the time.
But for all those readers out there, like me, who are just panting to trust that the protagonist is out of the maze of this story and can rest with a clear mind, it so worth it. Even if your protagonist has another 24 books to come.