Creating Satisfying Resolutions

I’m not talking about those resolutions we all make on January 1. I mean the way a story ends: how the plot comes together and the character arcs are ended. Every narrative arc has, or should have, a resolution. (I once purchased the first volume of a two-volume book, not realizing it was only the first half of the book. It ended mid-scene. This is not unlike the way some manuscripts end, which leaves the reader saying, “What?”)

Some resolutions are more satisfying than others, by which I mean readers feel that the time they’ve invested in the book has been worthwhile. This is not to say that a satisfying resolution = a happily ever after. A satisfying resolution can evoke sadness or righteous anger or any number of emotions, but the reader should feel that the story has ended appropriately to its content. Typically, a comic novel needs a comic ending. A romance needs a happily ever after. A thriller needs the villain to be stopped. In any type of novel, readers need to feel that while the characters may be getting on with their lives afterwards, they, and we, have been changed by what happens in the story.

It can be difficult for authors to understand that readers read novels not just because they may be thought-provoking but because the experience is emotionally rewarding. It may be appropriate to the novel for the ending to be some sort of intellectual or literary game, but such approaches will often disappoint readers who expect more from the author.

Many inexperienced authors favor ambiguous endings (did she or didn’t she?) but readers want authors to have a point of view—to say something. Love triumphs, power corrupts, the world is absurd, whatever. Ultimately, an author isn’t saying anything if they leave the resolution up to the reader. Thwarting expectations in general is always a risky business, but can in the right circumstances be of literary value (the criminal gets away at the end of mystery, for example, to prove a thematic point that, say, knowing the truth doesn’t necessarily mean justice prevails). Abdicating one’s role as author, on the other hand, is a bit pointless.

Readers don’t experience cliff hangers as compelling bits of art designed to get them to read the next book. They experience them as tricks. Ambiguous and cliff-hanger endings are ultimately unsatisfying. Each book in a series must reach some sort of resolution, even if an overall narrative arc isn’t concluded until the end of the series. Not every author will believe this, and of course you can’t make someone provide a satisfying resolution if they’ve chosen not to, but it’s important that you at least raise the concern.

A satisfying resolution should not rely on deus ex machina, where a person or thing suddenly solves the knotty problem. It should be the culmination of what has come before. Endings are difficult to get right, and often a tweak to an ending will require making a dozen other changes going back to the beginning of the book. A book that is fantastic for two hundred pages but fails in the last two still, in the reader’s mind, fails.

As the editor, you have to help the author see possible resolutions that may not have occurred to them.

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