When Do Endings Ruin Books?

Endings. You love them, or sometimes, you hate them. But why does the ending often have such a big impact on what we think of a story? Sometimes it goes so far as to ruin the book! In fact, some of the books I don’t like the most are disliked because of the ending. But why? Why are endings so important? And, when done wrong, why do they ruin books?

There are heavy spoilers for Tiny Pretty Things, The Storyteller, Book Thief, My Sister’s Keeper, and Not Your Daughter.

When there is no ending, thus giving us no closure.

Have you ever heard the joke where a reader is running out of pages and worried that there is not enough time to resolve anything? Sometimes, this is actually true. I picked up a YA ballet thriller a few years ago. Tiny Pretty Things featured the stories of three ballet dancers. Pranks ensue. Horrible stuff happens to the girls. We don’t find who did them, or why. In fact, there really isn’t an ending at all. The book just stops.

When you’re reading a thrilling book or a mystery, readers want to know who did it and why. For me, there is no excuse for not explaining these things. Readers want endings, k? We read books so we can learn what happens.

When it makes previous events meaningless.

In other words, “never have your main character wake up from a dream at the end.” When the ending makes the book irrelevant, why should we care? Why did we just spend all that time reading about what was going to happen if the motivations aren’t at stake, or if nothing comes of all those pages? Here are some examples (there are spoilers, obviously):

My Sister’s Keeper: Anna dies before anything can come of the court case.
The Book Thief: A bomb kills almost everyone except the protagonist. Yep. (I will give this a slight pass because it takes place during a major war, but this shouldn’t happen anywhere else.)

You might think, well, this is like real life. Sometimes acts of God happen. Well, yes. But in books, I feel like things are a little more orchestrated than they usually are in real life. That means we should usually get an ending that is relevant.

When the plot twist exists for shock value, sacrificing sense.

I return to The Storyteller, which had one of the most bizarre plot twists I’ve ever seen. Spoiler: Our MC encounters an older man named Josef who used to be a Nazi and committed crimes against her grandmother. It turns out that the MC decides to kill him, but it was never Josef. It was his brother pretending to be Josef the whole time. What was the reason for THAT? To have readers gasp and go, “oh no, the moral character killed the wrong person?” But that wasn’t the point of the book. The point was to have a debate on justice and what is right; whether a citizen whose grandmother was tortured had the right to kill a former Nazi who asked for it. It was never a crime thriller. Not to mention that this also meant that the brother had pretended to be Josef for the whole book, an odd behavior that was never explained.

When a plot twist is there just for shock value, it’s obvious and takes away from the meaning of the book. And it’s just poor writing in my opinion. This plot twist (among other flaws) made this 5-star book into a not-quite-3 star book for me. That’s pretty bad.

When the book changes course (i.e. it starts as one book and ends as another).

YA, I’m looking at you. I haven’t read it regularly for years now, but near the end of my time with the genre, I noticed it was the same deal over and over again: character with interesting plot premise meets a love interest and the author decides to spend more time on yet another boring love triangle, feeling that readers don’t care about the interesting plot anymore. If the author suddenly decides the original plot isn’t important, I’ll probably lose interest too. Stories should stay focused. If I pick up a book marketed for it’s thrilling spy mission, the second half shouldn’t be focused mostly on a romance.

Sigh. Speaking of which…

Now I’m going to return to Storyteller yet again. This started out as a really captivating book where a real mission was going on. But when Sage, our MC, meets Leo the prosecutor right away, you know what’s going to happen. Yep. What starts out as a captivating debate on forgiveness and justice turns into a sappy love fest, and that made me angry.

When a wild journey leads to nothing.

Endings can be hard to invent, especially in the thriller genre if the author isn’t familiar with how those types of events work. Rea Frey’s Not Her Daughter is a wild booklong chase of a well-meaning woman trying to save a young girl from a life of abuse, but does so by kidnapping her. It ends when the MC calls up her real mother on the phone and asks if she can just keep her daughter. The real mother, fed up with life and Emma, merely says yes.

Not only is this a really unsatisfying way of ending the book, but there are legal issues that make the events of the epilogue not work. Emma would need paperwork to start school, wouldn’t she? A birth certificate? Will she never be able to get medical attention again if she has no paperwork? And why are they still on the run if her mother gave her up? But then again isn’t it still a kidnapping because they never formally went through with adoption? It can be obvious when an author is putting half-effort into an ending because they don’t want to deal with legal consequences.

Maybe it’s not that endings can always full-out ruin books, but that they can make us feel cheated. Readers want to be satisfied, and for me that means wrapping everything up like so.

What endings are you unsatisfied with?