Warning: this post has some very general spoilers for both my books and for Bill Konigsberg’s books Honestly Ben and Openly Straight. VERY general. You’re not going to find out who killed JFK or anything. But if you’re the type of person who hoped for Titanic to have a surprise ending, maybe stop reading here.
Warning #2: I’m in a rambly mood, and this blog post definitely shows it. I suspect Rafe’s writing teacher in Openly Straight would leave me some very critical feedback.
I’m having one of those writing weeks where I’m thinking a lot about endings. About when endings should be specific and when they should be vague. When they should be happy or sad or thrilling or cause great anger on the part of the reader. Endings are hard—in so many ways they define the message and purpose of a novel. What makes them even more complicated is that most our stories don’t have nice clean endings, no matter how unhappy or happy they are. So I spend a lot of time considering how I can be true to the reality of my characters’ lives and still tell the story I want to tell.
My solution? I spend a lot of time writing what I half-jokingly call happy-but-ambiguous endings. The happy-but-ambiguous ending is any story ending which leaves the character in a generally good place emotionally and physically but without definitive clarity that everything has “worked out” for them. It’s the kind of ending that leaves you, the reader, to write the details in your mind of what likely happens next, even though the story itself left you with no question that the character is going to be a-okay.
As a writer I have more than a small affection for the happy-but-ambiguous ending, and I’ve written several YA novels with endings that play in this ballpark. For me, these types of endings just feel more authentic. I’m writing about people’s lives, and the ends of the chapters in our lives rarely come with every problem wrapped up nicely or all questions answered. But I also tend to write more hopeful stories, so my novels also usually end on more optimistic notes—hence the happy-but-ambiguous tagline.
While I may love writing a good happy-but-ambiguous ending, more than one reviewer has expressed some dislike after hitting the last page in one of my novels. If you’ve read Thanks a Lot, John LeClair, you know that there’s a key detail I left very obviously unsaid at the end of the book…and not every reader on the planet was thrilled. That’s okay. I get it. Sometimes we read for escape, right? Sometimes we read because we’re looking to find one the happy little bows that isn’t tying things up nicely in our own lives. We want our characters to find the closure and clarity we’re desperately searching for.
Case in point: this past Sunday I was thinking about endings and reading Honestly Ben, Bill Konigsberg’s new companion to Openly Straight. First of all, if you haven’t read Honestly Ben or Openly Straight, I highly recommend both books. Konigsberg tackles so many important themes and questions in both, and the characters he creates are incredibly likeable. (Even the ones who are not always so likeable are quite likeable, if that makes sense.)
So there I was, moseying through Honestly Ben, and my Kindle was indicating I was near the end of the book. Already I could sense what was coming: the happy-but-ambiguous ending. All signs were pointing toward it. For one thing, I was too far into the book for all the various plots and subplots to be wrapped up perfectly. For another, Openly Straight also features a happy-but-ambiguous ending.
And yes, I am a lover of the happy-but-ambiguous ending. When I am writing them. But what happens when I read them? Let me tell you: I hit the last page of Honestly Ben, and it took all my strength not to either a) throw my poor Kindle at the wall or b) write Bill Konigsberg asking for a third book to be released immediately. I was left with a hundred question. What about the_____? How will Ben _____? Will Ben ____ now?
That’s the thing about human beings, I guess. We all know our stories are complex and dynamic and that happily ever afters only happen in fairy tales. But that doesn’t mean we ever stop wishing for those happily ever afters to appear.
I’m sure I’ll go on to write more happy-but-ambiguous endings, and I’ll always appreciate when great authors like Konigsberg do the same. I suppose the moral of the story is this: be grateful when the writers you love are realistic and honest, and never throw your Kindle at the wall.