Should Our Stories Ever Really End?

Posted: April 2, 2015 in writing
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As readers we crave closure. When that is threatened, as when an ongoing series is cancelled or its author dies, we feel disappointed or even cheated. And as writers we work toward closure, using structures that will provide readers with a satisfying ending.

But is there another sense in which, with science fiction and fantasy in particular, one aim is to avoid closure and open up a never-ending imaginary world?

Tolkien and Openendedness

In his essay ‘The Interlaced Structure of The Lord of the Rings‘*, Richard C West argued that Tolkien’s novel created an effect “that might be called openendedness, whereby the reader has the impression that the story has an existence outside the confines of the book and that the author could have begun earlier or ended later, if he chose”.

I think West’s argument ignores some essential features of the book he’s discussing, but it still raises an interesting point. Part of the appeal of Tolkien’s work is that it implies a far larger world and history, one which readers could explore both through his appendices and through their imaginations.

In a sense, Tolkien provides firm closure, seeing a great threat ended and Frodo leaving Middle Earth. But in another sense, The Lord of the Rings leaves many questions unanswered in the reader’s mind.

A Tradition of Imagination

We can see this in many other works of fantasy and science fiction. They lead us to imagine a world far beyond the borders of their narratives. In a sense, their stories usually have clear, decisive beginnings and ends. But in another sense, the best leave their worlds open through the wealth of barely explored detail they provide.

Perhaps this is part of the appeal of science fiction and fantasy – that it invites us to imagine beyond its boundaries in a way not all fiction can.

What do you think? Do science fiction and fantasy somehow avoid closure? And is this distinctive to these genres?

* Published in A Tolkien Compass, edited by Jared Lobdell.

  1. It shouldn’t be distinctive to these genres, but is. It may be that the readers of fantasy and science fiction are characteristically unsatisfied with a closed ending, and love to push it further themsevles, in thier own minds or in word and deed if need be.

  2. I think most SFF has a feeling that, even if a particular story ends, there are other stories to be told about that setting or those characters — that the world and the people existed before the part of their story that got written down, and will continue to exist afterward.

  3. Steve Hartline says:

    I forget which Extended DVD of LotR has this ‘extra’, but one talks about JRRT’s world and in they have several ‘experts’ waxing poetic. I think the expansive nature is part of the appeal. Not having read the essay, I couldn’t say. But remember that the story of Frodo and the Company takes place at the end of the Third Age. JRRT has 1000s of words and other books devoted to those other times.

    And if a writer is successful, why not extend their world? Heck, I’d love nothing more than have a well defined world that evolves into multiple books and gets ported into a table top game ala Forgotten Realms, Deadlands, etc. (And I so hope Steven Erikson’s Malazan world gets ported). So I’m all for non-closure if I enjoy it as a reader.

    To your second question, no it isn’t just confined to SF/F, but there it makes the most sense. While we have Jim Butcher’s Dresden (and he could write about him forever), We also have John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport and Jim Grant’s Jack Reacher in the procedural / thriller genre.

    • Interesting to hear of some none-sff cases – thanks Steve. And as you say, Tolkien is a particularly noteworthy example, but there are many other worlds worthy of expanding upon.

      I’ve only read one of the Malazan books, may have to give them another go.

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