Why Endings Matter/Why Endings Don’t Matter

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”—Frank Herbert


I’ve been thinking a bit about Frank Herbert’s quote (which I identify with and agree with) versus how the general reader might respond to such an assertion. For many readers, the ending affects the overall impression of a book; an ambiguous or unsatisfying ending can leave an unfavorable impression of a book that might otherwise have gotten a rave review. Is this fair? I’ve learned long ago that readerly impressions have nothing to do with fairness. I can only speak to my own experiences as a reader and as a writer when I talk about the significance of a novel’s end.


Frankly speaking, a novel’s ending is almost immaterial to me because I always believe that the characters are going to live on long after the final page is turned. If the narrative was especially vivid and certain characters are still left standing, I like to imagine what might happen to them in ten years, in twenty years; I don’t necessarily like to have their fates sealed up, unless I am reading a Dickensian novel, in which case I expect that sort of treatment and find something comforting in it. There have been times where I have loved a novel so much that I have stopped reading it a few pages before it ends because I knew I couldn’t bear seeing its final words; similarly,  I find it difficult to say goodbye to loved ones and accept closure. (This reveals more about me as a person, I suppose, than it does about the way most readers think.)


As a writer, I love the open possibilities offered by the ambiguous ending. I love Thelma and Louise’s car perpetually poised in midair once it launches from the cliff. Does the car plummet, killing them both? Does it somehow make it to a neighboring cliff? Does an element of magical realism creep in, bringing both antiheroines into an entirely different realm? I like thinking that any and all of these—or none of these—could be the answer. As Emily Dickinson once put it,

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –



It’s admittedly  a conundrum, wanting to give readers a satisfactory ending yet also wanting one’s characters to take on new lives in the reader’s minds—the new lives of richly imagined possibilities. With both Asta in the Wings and What Has Become of You, I know I at least aimed for a graceful exit. In regards to where that human need for a satisfactory ending comes from—I suppose it comes from the failure of our real-life goodbyes to sate us, as anyone who has experienced great loss can understand. We want our fictive endings to nourish us in some way. I understand that kind of wanting. But I also believe as Theophile Gautier seemed to believe, as written in one of his stories:

“Nothing, in fact, actually dies; everything goes on existing, always…Every art, every word, every form, every thought, falls into the universal ocean of things, and provides a ripple on the surface that goes on enlarging beyond the furthest bounds of eternity.”