When To Leave Loose Ends Loose
..and Clovis the Cow trotted out of the barnyard and in the general direction of New York City, despite Farmer Bob’s heart-rending pleas for him to come back.
Boy, what an ending. Satisfying. Fulfilling my soul.
Or not. It might just be me, but I see a lot of loose ends lying around. Will Clovis ever return to the farm? How will Farmer Bob manage without him? And how will Clovis react when he stumbles across the inevitable realization that cows are actually female?
And guess what, there is no sequel, so you will never know. These loose ends are loose for all of eternity.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A story doesn’t always need to wrap up into a cute little bundle of resolved plotlines with a bow on top. In fact, a loose end or two can really add impact to that heart-wrenching, bittersweet ending I talked about last week. Or even a happy happy Hallmark ending.
But how do you know which story arcs should resolve, and which, if any, should be left dangling?
1. When It’s Not Really That Loose
Think of the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. As the camera fades on a smiling George and Mary Bailey, there are a few tiny loose ends. How will the conflict between Potter and the Bailey’s proceed? Will George tell Mary about Clarence and his experience with not being born?
We don’t really need this information, though. Based on everything that’s happened so far, our imaginations can pretty much tie these loose ends up. The writer has given us the information we need to finish the story on our own, and for most people, this adds an extra dash of charm to the experience.
2. To Show Scope of Character
When we’ve followed a character around for a two-hour movie or fifty-thousand word novel, we usually like to have an idea of what he or she is planning to do with their life when the story is over. Jane Austen is very obliging when it comes to this sort of thing. No one ever finishes Pride and Prejudice and says, “Gosh, do you think Darcy and Elisabeth’s marriage will succeed?”
But in some stories, a character rides into the sunset and we have no clue where they’re going or what they’re planning on doing.
This can be anticlimactic and irritating. Or, done correctly, it can give this character an extra layer of depth and vibrancy. Like Jason Bourne swimming away at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum. Where is he going? What will he do now? Only Jason Bourne knows. We get the sense, though, that his adventures will continue long after the credits roll.
3. To Show Scope of Story
The same thing can be done with an entire cast of characters, to give a sense of scope and real-ness to a story world. Like a war story that ends with the main characters still in the trenches. Maybe all their individual character arcs have resolved, but we don’t know for sure if they will make it out of all this alive, or what they have yet to lose.
This gives us the feeling that these people are stuck in the middle of something much bigger than them, that even if they were gone, the story, like the war, would go on.
4. When a Lesson Has Yet to be Learned
Sometimes, a character may ride into the sunset flawed and unchanged, without learning the important lesson that would have resolved his character arc.
This is really a bummer. But sometimes this can reinforce the theme, the point of his unlearned lesson, much better than if he had actually learned it.
Maybe from Clovis the Cow’s ill-advised decision to go to New York and become a professional wrestler, we readers can truly see how much better and fulfilling his life would have been had he stayed a simple milk cow on Farmer Bob’s farm. (The only male milk cow in existence, actually.)
Clovis’s refusal to see the light may sadden us, but we will hopefully come away from the story a little wiser, and maybe a little changed.
Or just very confused. Male milk cow. What even.