Ok, I’ll admit it. I’m one of those writers who ends her books with a certain amount of…uncertainty, shall we say? Don’t get me wrong – no INCEPTION endings here (‘Is it a dream? Is it reality?’). The main issues in my stories get resolved. Big questions get answered. Warm feelings are felt. But I tend to leave a few loose ends blowing in the breeze.
Now, as a young child, endings like this used to drive me NUTS. I clearly remember getting to the last pages of a few books and yelling, “WHAT? That’s IT? But what about (fill in the blank)?” The story would haunt me for DAYS. I’m sure if my kid self could meet my adult self, my adult self would get an earful…and maybe a pummeling (yeah, I was a tomboy).
So why do I – and other writers – leave a touch of ambiguity in our endings?
Well, first of all, look at what I wrote above – ‘the story would haunt me for days.’ The characters hadn’t been happily-ever-aftered into the sunset and ushered back onto my shelf to be forgotten. They were still in my head, living their lives, coming up against who-knows-what. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those unanswered questions were what kept the characters alive in my imagination – much longer than any characters whose stories were wrapped up with neat, unrealistic, bows.
Another, more pragmatic, reason for a little ending ambiguity is to keep the door open for a sequel. Leaving some questions unanswered (or coming up with new questions) is a great way to have readers begging for more. Some writers (and I am not one of them) have in their big brains very complex and epoch stories that cannot be told in one volume. A great example is my fellow writer and friend, Ellen Jensen Abbott, who had an entire trilogy filling up her gray matter when she sold WATERSMEET to Marshall Cavendish. Ellen left just enough hanging in the balance that her fans are now counting the days until the sequel, THE CENTAUR’S DAUGHTER, hits the shelves this fall. And speaking of sequels, where would the world be if Harry Potter had killed Voldemort off in the first book? Please!
Another loose-thread-leaving rationale has to do with time. Not that the author ran out of time to write a proper ending. No, I mean the time span of the story itself. While some adult books may cover years or centuries even, most middle grade stories take place in a relatively short period of time – a few weeks or months, at most a year. Keeping the time span short heightens the excitement and lends a sense of immediacy and urgency that young readers crave in a plot.
However, as we know, not everything in life happens that quickly. Rocky marriages don’t mend overnight. Wars drag on. Broken trust is long in rebuilding. Wrapping up these long-term issues too quickly can result in an ending that feels trite, contrived, and way too convenient. Rushed or forced endings are a great way to kill an otherwise great book. Not every story thread can be resolved within a middle grade’s short time frame, and by design, needs to be left up in the air.
For example, my book, BEST FRIENDS FOREVER: A WWII SCRAPBOOK takes place right after the Japanese Americans are forced into the internment camps. Best friends Dottie and Louise keep in touch through letters and Louise documents all the goings-on in her scrapbook. But where to end it? The war lasted almost four years, darn it! No middle grader wants to read a story that drags on for four years! But I couldn’t exactly change history either. So what’s a writer to do?
My editor and I finally decided to use a natural break – when Dottie moves from the temporary relocation center to the permanent internment camp – as the place to end the book. The main story arc – the girls’ friendship withstanding separation and prejudice – has come to a complete and satisfying conclusion. But the war is still going on, Louise’s brother is still off fighting and Dottie has moved further away. That’s the way it was back then – there was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of waiting, and to depict it otherwise would have been irresponsible as well as inaccurate.
Which leads me to my third reason for leaving a few loose ends in a middle grade book – because that’s the way Life is. Life is messy, changing, slippery, unpredictable, elusive and full of ambiguities. Middle grade readers are beginning to discover this in their own lives. Reading about characters who face similar uncertainties – yet still remain hopeful – can be as comforting as it is instructive.
And what greater gifts can a writer leave with her young readers than hope and comfort?
Beverly Patt is certain she writes from her suburban Chicago home but looks forward to whatever uncertainties life has in store for her.