For Writers and Readers: What Closure in Fiction ISN’T

lockflower-1126249-mClosure is SO important in fiction. Every reader needs some sense of release and “c’est fini” at the end of a novel. A sense that something important–if not everything, at least something major–has been resolved or completed.

This is a main reason why, generally, I can’t stand cliffhangers, even in series novels. I prefer that each novel wrap up a completed story in and of itself.

(Even if there are some lose threads and a larger story arc still in development, a series novel can tell and wrap up a complete story from start to finish. Each Harry Potter novel is a great example of this.)

“Closure” can be a funny thing, though. There is no one way to provide closure and no one definition of what closure means.

“Closure” means something very different from genre to genre and from story to story. You can leave societal unrest not completely settled in a romance novel set during the Civil War and still provide closure.

You probably should bring some stability to the government, though, if you’re writing “save the world” sci-fi or fantasy. See what I mean?

Generally, editors and beta readers will clue you in if you haven’t provided enough closure for your audience. They’ll let you know when they have unanswered questions that left the end unsatisfying.

Before involving other people, though, it’s important to remember what closure is NOT, so you don’t drive yourself nuts trying to provide it.

CLOSURE DOESN’T MEAN THERE’S NO ROOM TO ENVISION THE FUTURE.

You don’t have to map out the rest of your characters’ lives to provide closure. In fact, most readers will prefer you don’t do that. A novel is supposed to be a chunk of life, a piece of someone’s existence.

Part of the fun is imagining what might happen after the curtain falls: where characters might go, what might happen to them. What adventures will they have next? No two readers will have the exact same answer to that: and that’s so cool to me!!!

CLOSURE DOESN’T MEAN EVERYONE’S LIFE IS IN COMPLETE ORDER

It doesn’t mean things are perfect and your characters are now living in a utopia.

Much more often, it means a reader is sure that your characters are now mature, knowledgeable, and brave enough to face whatever persistent problems plague them after a big problem has been taken care of.

Maybe a character has come to accept a major loss, or a change that is irrevocable. That acceptance is closure.

Closure doesn’t mean a lack of problems. It means the reader has seen character development: the character has become, in one major way or other, a better (or at least) different person than he or she used to be. The cycle of that transformation is complete.

CLOSURE DOESN’T MEAN EVERYTHING HAS TO MAKE PERFECT SENSE.

Illness, suffering, and death never make sense on a philosophical and emotional level. They’re just wrong. There’s a part of human nature that always recognizes these things should not be. That recoils from them because they just don’t fit in the world as it’s meant to be. (Thanks, G.K. Chesterton…. Picked this idea up from one of his books, and it really resonated with me.)

Closure doesn’t mean these things make sense. It can mean that if a human or human-like entity is responsible for suffering, we know who that entity is and that entity is held responsible in some way.

It means that the actions your characters take are understandable to the reader. The reader doesn’t have to agree with them; but the reader can accept that this character did this or that because of this or that.

Closure means the mechanics of the story make sense; not that evil is explained away or completely vanquished.

So, what do you think of closure? As a reader, what is the most important aspect of closure for you? How would YOU define closure in your writing?

I hope you enjoyed this post…. Closure is such an important topic, and relates so much to real life as well as fiction. Psychologically, it’s such a deep and important concept.

One reason, in fact, that fiction MUST have closure, and MUST make sense in an elementary way, is that real life so often does not.

If this post resonated with you, you might enjoy these related posts:

  1. On Plot Resolution and Closure: When is your novel supposed to end?
  2. Why Writing and Reading Books Matters
  3. Writing as Therapy
  4. How Plot Relates to Genre

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34 responses to “For Writers and Readers: What Closure in Fiction ISN’T

  1. Great post! This is where many new authors make their mistakes. The rage is for trilogies right now and many are handled incorrectly. I read one where the story seemed resolved, then right at the end, a big cliffhanger!! Then it stops. A big neon sign that is flashing the reader to buy the 2nd book, and I think a good indication that book 2 will be more of the same. This does not play fair to the reader. I understand cliffhangers, and I like them–at the end of chapters, NOT at the end of the book! There is nothing wrong with hinting at a future event, something that will create a little nibble of interest, but not a major event that is left unanswered. This is especially interesting to me, because I am considering a series. The most important thing is not to make the reader so upset that they refuse to buy another one of yours books. I’ve seen this on some of the Amazon reviews. Many were from unsatisfying endings. They will leave a bad review and then vow to never pick up another title written by that author!

    • I agree wholeheartedly. I feel cliffhangers at the end of a book are cheap. (Unless the book is just too long to be published in one volume so it’s volume one and two of a single work)

      The writing should be strong enough that you don’t need a cliffhanger to entice readers to keep following your characters. That’s my view.

  2. Do the great stories ever really have an end?
    Samwise Gamgee had a good point (To quote from LOTR):

    …’And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same – like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’

    ‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ’But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’

    ‘No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it – and the Silmaril went on and came to Earendil. And why, sir, I never though of that before! We’ve got – you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’

    ‘No, they never end as tales,’ said Frodo. ’But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended. Our part will end later – or sooner.’ …

    Maybe that is a key ingredient in writing a good series also.
    I don’t know if you have read any of Terry Brooks’ Shannara books, but he has a wonderful way of tying everything in the history of his world together.

    I like to see the individual closures in stories, rather than cliffhangers that TV shows try to do. One of the reasons I stopped watching TV is that I lost track of the story, and therefore lost interest in the series. If too much time elapses in a cliffhanger, no one is left hanging anymore.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next in the world of Herezoth!

    • Thanks, Dean!!! I LOVE Sam and LOTR and I totally agree with him. In a lot of ways the real stories never end.

      I have not read Terry Brooks yet but I will have to check him out! That sounds awesome…. I love it when an author can tie things up in a way that isn’t contrived.

  3. The more series I read (and watch), the more I hate all those cliffhangers. It’s like having a cappuccino without the coffee underneath. I don’t want to order another two to finally drink some that coffee.

  4. Is it better to leave your readers annoyed but wanting more (ie they put your next book on their to-buy list) or to wrap everything up nicely so that they never feel they have to revisit your world? It’s a tricky one.
    Interesting post. I’ve been battling the ending in my WIP to try and balance the right amount of closure with maintaining a desire for readers to return.

    • Personally, I don’t mind a little annoyance as a reader if I feel it’s necessary to the story and I understand why it’s done…. But when I feel the annoyance is a result of a horrible cliffhanger and created for the sole purpose of want to make me buy another book….

      There are definitely readers who balk at that and stop reading on principle.

      An author’s writing should be strong enough that she don’t need to rely on cheap tricks like cliffhangers to keep people reading your books… That’s how I look at it.

  5. “Maybe a character has come to accept a major loss, or a change that is irrevocable. That acceptance is closure.” I love that you said this because I’ve been thinking over the recent end to my WIP where the MC cannot get home. But instead of feeling sad, I actually felt okay, because she spends the whole novel forcing her way back and from that things go wrong. Accepting she’s not going to return seemed the most logical way to end it.

  6. Great post, I enjoyed reading it. Although I must disagree with a few of the comments (sorry!). I like not having everything tied up for me at the end of a book, be it in a series or a stand alone work. I like that the author has assumed a certain amount of intelligence and imagination on my part and has left it open for me to consider how things run after the end of the book.

    I don’t mean that I want gaping holes in plot. I think if a plot has been set up then it should reach some form of conclusion, it doesn’t have to be in that book if I know it is part of a series, there can be plots or sub plots running through them. Not just several books involving the same characters in totally different adventures. That said, I believe an individual book in a series must bring some sense of closure to the reader, but an open end can in itself be closure, we can’t know everything in life.

    There have been some great open endings in books and films – Gone With The Wind, Lost In Translation, The Italian Job (original), 2001, Inception and Catch 22.

    I think the main question is, ‘Is it well written?’, I think if the writing is good enough then many more readers will be accepting of an open ended book. If an ending makes you think and talk about it, then I guess the book has done it’s job.
    🙂

    • I agree…. there are different degrees of open-endedness that still can qualify as closure depending on the story and the tone/mood.

      Inception is a great example…. The overall story of planting the inception is done and wrapped up. So that bit of clever open-endedness is really cool!

      Also with gone with the wind. You have Rhett resolutely leaving Scarlett. That’s a fixed end point and it works. Sure, she decides she’s not going to let him go that easy…. And that makes you wonder what she’ll do next. But the end is still there. There’s SOME kind of a ending to grasp there.

      • That Christopher Nolan sure knows how to tell a story on film! I love Memento, now that is an ending where you’re not even sure if you’ve just watched the end, middle or the beginning, talk about assuming intelligence!

  7. I agree on a lot of this, and I actually think a couple of A English’s examples do provide good closure, and show how it doesn’t have to be done in an obvious way.
    Catch 22 and Inception both seem, on the surface, to leave the resolution open (warning, here come spoilers) – we don’t know if the main characters actually get where they were going, physically speaking. But in both cases, we get closure through seeing a mental journey completed. Yossarian escapes the madness around him, even if we don’t see him reach neutral ground. Cobb confronts and lets go of his past. The closure is that, to him, it doesn’t matter whether or not this is real – he’s essentially pulled an inception on himself, accepting that he’d rather be happy than know the truth.
    Incidentally, did anyone else think the Alfred scene at the end of the last Batman film also had a Nolan-esque ambiguity about it? My wife and I argued about this all the way back from the cinema. Definitely had closure though.

    • I totally agree…. I actually just responded to A English’s comment talking about how those examples provide some level of closure along with openendedness. Then I read your comment 🙂 Yea for back-up!!! 🙂

      I personally just thought the ending of Batman was poorly done because it makes no sense to that Bruce Wayne would not be recognized…. but I guess it could be considered ambiguous?

  8. I agree! It’s sad how often patrons come into the library searching for the ‘sequel’ to some book that doesn’t have one. The feeling of unfinished business bothers them. My favorites though are the books that offer plenty of final closure but allow for debate among readers about what happens next – The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood comes to mind.

  9. Very well said. I think a lot of new authors mistake closure for ‘this is it!’ and they don’t leave any flexibility. Others do what has been mentioned with leaving a cliffhanger even at the end of a series. It’s like they’re openly begging for fans to demand a continuation even though their publishing contract is up or they ran out of ideas. As far as the not making sense part, I’ve been told that the end of the Hunger Games Trilogy has an ending like that. I’ve also been told that last book is terrible, but that’s besides the point.

    • I too have heard the first book is fantastic in The Hunger Games and things go downhill from there. I have yet to read them…. hope that isn’t true. But I’ve heard from enough people that it seems to be a fact 😦

      • It’s sad. I wonder if it’s an example if a trilogy that should have stayed a solitary book. Focus on character development and survival instead of the world and it might work.

        • It’s funny–the third book was my favorite of the series. 🙂 I think it relates a lot to Victoria’s post, because in the end everything doesn’t make perfect sense and it’s not all in complete order, but for some reason it really satisfied me. It didn’t make me happy (it made me sob, actually) but it gave me closure.

        • Closure is the important part. The argument I’ve heard against it is that Katniss doesn’t gain any real development. I’ve heard the opposite too, so I’m not sure what’s going on.

        • I really need to read them!!! Oh man…. SO many things to read. And an ever elusive job to find first…. 🙂 That might be the best thing about finally find some kind of work: I won’t feel guilty reading anymore!!

        • I think she does get development. Maybe not as much as she could have, but she’s not the same person she was before, and I think it was a realistic place to leave her. I can’t say I completely disagree with the arguments against the book, though. It’s not perfect, but I loved it. Victoria, you should totally read the series! I hope that darn job stops being so elusive. 🙂

        • thanks!!!! me too! 🙂

  10. Great post, Victoria. The ending is so important to me as a reader and as a writer–perhaps even more as a reader. To me, the last quarter of a book is the most important, and it determines whether I love a book or not. Closure is a huge part of that, obviously. This makes me think about the seventh book of The Dresden Files. Things have been going downhill for the main character, Harry, for at least four books. Despite bad things that happen in the seventh book, things are starting to look up for him; he’s starting to recover and take charge of his life. It’s a really satisfying ending.

    Oh, and the thing that drives me CRAZIEST about endings is if they put the character and story right back where they started. The Reset Button, so to speak. I really hate that, because it makes the whole journey pointless and it’s endlessly frustrating to me. This happens a lot in TV shows.

    • oh my gosh, YES. The reset button. Fantastic point to make: I generally don’t like that either.

      On maybe a rare occasion, when it has a really deep significance, or it means restoring a peace and happiness that used to be, I can deal with it. But even then: there’s a reason people say “you can’t go home again.”

  11. I like closure too, and I think you’re right, it’s easy to sense when closure isn’t given. It’s like an uneasy itch. A sense of ‘something isn’t right here,’ kind of thing. In my opinion, anyway.

  12. I agree with you, there is many different types of closure.

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