Here’s an interesting tweet I saw yesterday.
If I'm reading a crime novel I expect the ending to resolve all plot points, not to create a new plot for the next novel.—
Rowan Whiteside (@DilysTolfree) August 20, 2012
This hearfelt plea came after the reader had finished a book only to discover it had a cliffhanger ending and then, just to rub things in apparently, the first chapter of the next book as a come-on to keep reading. Is that acceptable? Should readers really be treated like this?
In my view… no, but with reservations. Let’s deal with the pre e-book situation first. Before digital came along most of us produced one book a year maximum. If you put a cliffhanger at the end of one book you were saying to the reader, ‘OK. You have to wait twelve months before you can even think of discovering where this one is going.’
That really pushes everyone’s patience. It’s impractical and downright cheeky. My Costa books are standalone stories with an underlying tale beneath the surface, that of the relationship between the people involved. I think they need that underlying thread because without the sense of some dynamic at a personal level they’d all be puppets trapped in amber. But a continuing personal story is a long way from a ‘who did it, what comes next’ cliffhanger.
That was then. Today, in the digital age, books come out much more quickly. Is a cliffhanger acceptable if the gap between books is six months, not twelve? I still don’t think so frankly, though others may disagree. But…
What about digital books that appears in serial fashion? One long story, perhaps with sub-stories, told month by month, or even week by week? That could be interesting and I’m sure there are plenty of people working on it already.
At the same time I think we can take the resolution issue a bit too seriously. I agree that most things should resolve at the end of a story. But not all.
As Sacheverell Sitwell wrote (and I quoted in Carnival for the Dead), ‘It’s the mystery that lasts, not the explanation.’ We’ve rather lost that attitude today. If every plot point has to be neatly tied up at the end of the tale it can feel as if you’re reading a business plan, not a work of fiction. Life doesn’t resolve and is frequently quite inexplicable. Why should fairy stories that pretend to represent it be any different?
Some of the most compelling stories are made stronger by their refusal to buckle down to resolution. One of my favourites films, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, leaves any number of threads wide open. It’s the better for that too, though if Hitch was making it for cinema today I bet some teenage producer would demand he tie up rather more than he had to back in the 1950s.
The visual media are less hung up about resolution than we are in books. One of the issues I faced when I was writing The Killing lay in this area. On TV we discovered at the end who killed Nanna Birk Larsen. But we never did find out why. I felt a book needed that information, which was the principal reason I gave my version of the story a completely different ending.
But there are still a few dangling threads and really, I don’t mind them. We’re writing fairy tales for the mind, not narrative spreadsheets in which every column must add up perfectly. At least… I am, or trying to.