How important is a good ending in a work of fiction?

Inspired by the thread on Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson which although a fun and interesting book doesn’t really have much of an ending.

Personally a satisfying ending is very important to me, no matter how much I enjoyed reading the rest of the book if at least the main plot threads aren’t wrapped up in a convincing manner it taints the rest of the story for me.

The worst example of this I’m come across in sci-fi book terms is The Nights Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton, lots of Big Ideas resulting in an entirely unsatisfactory and unconvincing conclusion.

Very important it allows you to move on.

I’ve been reading, “Tales of the Otori” by Lian Hearn. They end perfectly. I’ve very rarely read a more satisfying ending.

It’s important to me. I still bear much exaggerated animosity towards Ron Moore for his entirely unsatisfactory conclusion to BSG. I quit reading John Grisham years ago, because his endings suck. I want the ending to make sense, and tie up at least most of the story in a meaningful way. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but the audience deserves to not be left going WTF?

It depends on the type of the work in question, I think. I don’t have too much of a problem with the lack of a clear ending in some Stephenson books, because I’m not only reading them for the plot. On the other hand, some mysteries and procedurals are created mainly for their plot, so a poor ending is a bigger problem for them.

If the book doesn’t have a good ending, the author isn’t doing his job.

Somewhat important, but not the end-all, be-all. If the story is strong enough to entertain me to that point, I’m willing to overlook a lot and a number of authors I like seem to struggle with endings. So I sort of regard weak endings with regret, but it doesn’t necessarily completely taint all that came before it.

Or to take Oakminister’s example, I don’t have a particularly strong animus towards Ron Moore, even though I think he could have done better :).

For me a good ending can arguably be a defining part of a story. It’s fascinating to see how themes and plots are wrapped up. Take the ending of No Country for Old Men (no spoilers). At first you might think “What the hell?” but the more you think about it, the more it seems to fit. The ending of Once Upon a Time in America is depressing and thought-provoking, but it fits. And that’s what happens in a good story. The parts fit together.

Spoilers for The Dark Tower, by Stephen King
I was dragging through this series. It’s not one of my favorite King works (see The Stand, and It). Parts of it were extremely unfitting, some of the writing was mediocre. But for what it’s worth I thought the ending wrapped up the story well. Here come the spoilers: our protagonist Roland has reached the Dark Tower, the lynchpin of the universe, after traveling through years through a chaotic, pointlessly violent fantasy world. Instead of finding something or somebody at the top, the force which presides over the Tower sucks his spirit into a different universe where he must repeat his quest with no memory of his previous efforts, from where the series began in the first book. It just seemed to sum up the archetype of life repeating itself endlessly really well.

My only complaint about Terry Pratchett is that his books tend to conclude in unsatisfying ways, often with a weird deus ex. He’s good enough that I can overlook it, which isn’t true of most authors.

Not as important as one might think. When I look back at my book journal, there are a lot of books that I praised highly, but also noted that the ending leaves something to be desired. If other aspects of the book are really working for me, I can afford to be a little forgiving with the ending.

Of course, on the other hand, if I am enjoying a book, and the ending is unexpectedly amazing, that brings the reading experience to a whole new level. As much as I’m willing to excuse an ending that is not the book’s strongest feature, there is nothing as satisfying as a superior ending on a book that was already terrific up until that point.

Does this post seem weirdly sexual to anyone else, or is that just me?

I had just been thinking a few days ago about how many books there are where I’ve loved the plot, but the ending was such a wash-out that I can’t even remember it. Which is really bad if it’s a mystery story.

I’ve always admired books (and movies) where the plot seems to not make a lot of sense, although it holds your interest, but you can’t see where it’s going, and all of a sudden the ending comes out of nowhere and makes everything that came before change in meaning. I surmise it takes a lot of skill to pull that off effectively.

Almost nobody can end a story satisfactorily. Both short stories and novels. I keep reading award nominees that have terrible endings.

Some endings are so disappointing that they taint the whole work. Mostly though, the story is about the journey. (Classic example: Don’t even the Tolkien loons hate the six bad endings of LotR?) When people talk about classic literature how often do they talk about the ending? It’s the package that counts.

I don’t necessarily think that a good ending is critical, but a bad ending can ruin a book for me. I mean, a lot of books don’t really have a traditional “wrapping-up” of loose ends, but that’s OK if it is consistent with the story and makes me think about what might happen, how the characters move on, what they do next, etc.

But I’ve read many a book where the author seems to suddenly realize that the ending is near and finishes in an unsatisfying way. Ruins the whole book for me.

Of course, it can work the other way. I really didn’t like Atonement until the ending, at which point it made the whole book worthwhile for me.

I hope it’s not my inner fanboy doing the thinking here, but I don’t see it. I would, as a matter of fact, put Pratchett as an example of endings done right, where a character, let’s say the Patrician, starts setting in motion a plan before the end of the first act and then said plan slowly unfolds during the plot giving us a nicely wrapped ending that makes complete sense.
Could you give me an example of what you mean?

I want the main plot to conclude satisfyingly, but I don’t need every facet explained or character arc to draw to an end. In fact, I like an open-ended character arc, that suggests there are more stories in their future. But I want a murder mystery or alien threat to be dealt with in a non-deus-ex way, or at least in a method I can follow and doesn’t get all mystical and odd.

I recently read a book called Mainspring, by Jay Lake, that had a decent backdrop, and started out reasonably well (though it meandered pointlessly for a while) then halfway through it took an unexpected left turn, and became a rushed and incomplete, and somewhat uncomfortable, mess. The ending was complete rubbish, that made no sense and had no real connection with the original set up.

It was like he had enough ideas for half a book, and then just started to make crap up to meet his deadline. I was very disappointed.

having said that, I know from my limited writing experience that endings can be very difficult to write. Mostly because in the real world, things don’t end in satisfying ways, they just peter out and invisibly blend into other parts of your life.

Another Stephen King example is the recent Under The Dome.

He creates all these characters and you get to know them and they divide into opposing factions (good vs. bad) and things are building to a head and then there’s also the ‘aliens’ who made the dome that started the whole thing and you are expecting a big confrontation/showdown between the good guys and bad guys and then maybe some sort of reckoning with the aliens. But instead, an accidental explosion lays everything to waste and kills most people, and one of the few survivors begs the aliens for mercy and they grudginly relent and raise the dome. The End.

I don’t mind a “Bad” ending so long as it feels like the author at least TRIED to make it to the end. Sometimes I feel that an author writes themselves into a corner and instead of changing it he/she takes a shortcut. Or even if he/she doesn’t and it reads that way I’m not happy with it.

Sometimes it could be bad editing. Betty “A Tree Growns In Brooklyn” Smith wrote another novel called, “Joy In The Morning,” which I liked but at the end it was like “All of a sudden a year had gone by and it was graduation time.”

I remember thinking “what?” What is THAT all about?

Only two decades later did I read an interview with her online, and in that interview Smith said that the editor cut over 100 pages out of this book before it was published. OK I don’t know what was cut out, maybe it wasn’t the ending but it seemed logical for that to be the place that was cut, since it was basically resolved with a few lines like “suddenly it was a year later.”

So I’m thinking sometimes the author may be forced to make changes

For being an unfinished novel, The Trial packs a hell of a wallop at the end - “It was as though the shame of it should outlive him.”

[whoops, realized I posted this in the wrong thread!]

A good book can have a mediocre ending, but not a bad ending. A bad ending will ruin a book no matter how good the rest of it is. This is why I refuse to read King anymore, because his books always end with some invincible cosmic force beyond human comprehension doing something completely arbitrary and unsatisfying. I love King for the first 95% of his books, and absolutely hate him for the last 5%.

The ending is vital for me and it’s where even some wildly successful authors just fall apart.
The books I can re-read over and over, the ones I count as my favorites ever, all have satisfying endings.

Well although I wouldn’t say I hate him, I do know what you mean. But I tend not to take his works as heavily as a lot of bigger fans (still haven’t checked out Under the Dome (on another note thank God I didn’t get that for Christmas, because I used to read him a lot more regularly and I’d get a book by him practically every year, not that I’m trying to avoid it), probably will in a few years if I have the time).
On one hand, as has been pointed out, there have been a lot of books/movies that seemed to be going along great, but then end up sucking at the end, yet still people will recommend the book. Take Audrey Niffenegger’s latest, Her Fearful Symmetry: I haven’t read it, but the deal is that it basically got solid reviews (not as solid as The Time Traveler’s Wife), except for the end, which a lot of people hated, or just disliked. And even though my mother and sister both thought the ending detracted from the work, they really liked it. So I guess that goes with what somebody said earlier in this thread.
Wow, looking back on what I wrote this almost looks like a me-too post. Almost.