Many readers will say that the purpose of reading a book is the experience of reading, not the ending. Otherwise, why not just skip to the last few pages? It would be like skipping to the last few minutes of a movie. But that doesn’t mean the ending is not important. The ending is the last hurrah of the story and the farewell to the reader. It’s the chance to tie up the unresolved plot threads and leave the reader glad they took the time and effort to read.
So why would an author finish with a What the Hell ending? You know what a What the Hell ending is, don’t you? That’s where you wade through the entire book expecting that the ending will be both explanatory and satisfying. The lovers will live happily ever after, the bad guy will get his come-uppence, the secret will be revealed, or the treasure will be found. The reader slams the cover shut (or switches off his ebook reader) and sighs with contentment as if finishing Thanksgiving dinner. But a What the Hell ending is when the hero, who has been struggling through the entire book and is just starting to turn his life around steps in front of a bus and dies on the last page, or nobody finds the treasure, or when the reader is told that the couple who spent the entire book getting together got divorced three months later. The reader stares at the page incredulously and says “What the hell…?”
What the hell endings are the dirtiest trick you can play on a reader. They are Lucy pulling the football away at the last second with the reader as Charlie Brown. The reader has invested several hundred pages of his time and emotion in the story, only to have it snatched away. There are several basic types of What the hell endings.
1- The bait and switch- The reader expects a logical, satisfying, tie up the loose ends ending, but finds out that everything up to that point was meaningless. Example: The underdog baseball team struggles through the entire story to gain skill and respectability. In the climactic chapter, they finally make it to the playoffs and fight to stay even with the favorite. It all comes down to the final out and the underdog team loses on an error.
2- The cut off- This is when the story doesn’t really conclude, it just stops, as if the author simply got tired or decided to write something else. The reader is left to figure out the rest of the story on his own. Example; In the baseball story, the underdog team finally gets to the championship game and the story ends as the first batter comes to the plate.
3- The partial ending- The story concludes in a generally satisfactory way, but unresolved plot lines are left hanging. Example- The struggling couple fell in love, but no further mention is made of the drunken uncle who was last seen falling off a bridge, the author of the poison pen notes was never revealed, and the foreclosure of the family home was never resolved.
4- The all a dream ending- This is a classic when the author can’t figure out how to resolve everything realistically. It is also used when the author wants to be able to write a sequel, but has killed off several characters he’d like to bring back. Example: Probably the most famous example of this ending was when the TV series Dallas killed off popular character JR. For weeks they milked the “Who shot JR” theme, until there was no satisfactory way to make it all make sense. So they revealed that it had all been a bad dream. Bad writing was more like it.
5- The wait a minute ending- The story is apparently concluded and most of the unresolved subplots are wrapped up, but the reader finds himself saying “Wait a minute; what about…” because many of the plot points are contradictory, incomplete, or make no sense. Example: The ending depends on one of the characters remembering seeing a certain clue in a place the character could not have been.
6-The oh, by the way ending- The ending depends on information the reader was not given in the story. Example: The poison in the coffee did not kill the hero because, unbeknownst to the reader, he had installed a video surveillance system in his kitchen and observed the bad guy poisoning the coffee, thus enabling him to secretly substitute a new cup and have the bad guy arrested. Well, fine, but shouldn’t the reader be let in on it a little sooner? Reading a story is a lot less satisfying if you get the sense that another, more important story is going on at the same time but you can’t see it.
So if you’re an author, play fair with the reader. If they’re read your work and read it all the way to the end, they deserve a reward in the form of a great satisfying ending that makes them glad they spent the time with you. You want them to close the book reluctantly and feel they are better for the experience. Don’t pull that football away. Don’t make them slam the book down and say. “What the hell?” because the next thing they will say is “I’ll never read anything by that jerk again!”