Sometimes when I write fiction, I leave certain details open-ended. Yes, there is always more to know about the arc of characters’ lives, but in my opinion some of it belongs in the story and some doesn’t.
Unfortunately, this seems to drive a percentage of readers crazy.
People write to me asking how things turned out for a character or characters. Sebastian and Maria (from Chasing Windmills), for example. Will they be together again? People have said in their reader reviews that they’re taking away one star because I didn’t tell them if Nat and Carol get back together at the end of When I Found You. People request sequels with surprising frequency, which is a lovely compliment—but it’s another example of curiosity regarding what happens after the last page (although I know it some cases it’s a desire to spend more time with the characters, which I love to hear).
Then there’s Pay It Forward.
Right now I’m in the process of reading over 100 emails from middle school students who are studying Pay It Forward in school. Which is a lot of fun. But they want to know all this stuff beyond the last page. What happens with Trevor? Did this or that character really Pay It Forward?
I find myself having more and more to say about fiction as it relates to any open questions in the work. I think there’s a flaw in how we’re looking at the whole issue. And I think reading becomes more meaningful when we clear up the misunderstanding. So I’m going to air my thoughts about that in this post.
When I worked with my editor at Simon & Schuster to create the Young Readers’ Edition of Pay It Forward, I had a big decision to make regarding the ending. I decided not to go against my original intention, exactly, but rather to end the book before Trevor’s fate is known and let young readers decide for themselves. I knew I’d get questions about it, so I included the following in my introduction/author’s note for the Young Readers’ Edition:
“This is the same book, just a bit shorter, and much more appropriate for the young reader. The characters and the story are the same.
One thing is slightly changed, however. I’ve done something a little different with the ending. Left it more open. And I know I’ll get a lot of questions about it. Children, and probably adults as well, will email me to ask what happened after the last page.
But fiction isn’t like that. I don’t have a secret key to any parts of the story that aren’t on the page. After I stop writing, it’s up to you. That’s the magic of a story. It’s a combination of your imagination and mine. Whatever happens in your mind is just as real as what happens in the mind of the author.
So don’t write to me and ask me how it ended. Write to me and tell me how it ended for you.
We’ll pool our resources and come up with a memorable story. And maybe … just maybe … a kinder world.”
So here are a couple of answers for those who want to know what happened to/with [fill in the blank]:
1. Nothing happened. It’s fiction. Those people don’t exist. I do want to say, though, that I’m pleased and flattered that you feel like they did. That’s a great compliment. But they can’t do anything beyond the words on the page, because they’re not real.
2. Reading is a different kind of experience from, say, watching a movie. It’s a fictional world where you bring your imagination to the page with mine, and we create something together. Don’t give my imagination too much credit and your own too little. Do Carol and Nat get back together? Do Sebastian and Maria come back around to each other? They do if you say they do. There’s no reason to ask me, as if I own all their details. That’s the beauty of reading. You own them, too.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on how any of these characters or story lines evolved in your imagination after the last page, because your assessment is every bit as valid as mine.