Resolution or Payoffs

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A couple weeks ago, in my post on the writer/reader contract, many commenters hit on the importance of resolution.

It’s not exactly a surprise that resolution—payoff—is a crucial component to the reading experience for a lot of us, and becomes exponentially more important with series. A resolution that hits the reader the wrong way, after investing in the book (or series), can lead to an angry breakup. Or, put another way, though the writer did their best to tell the story they had to tell, the reader no longer trusts them.

Several book-loving friends have talked about writers who used to be on their autobuy list, now slipped to “Maybe check to see how people react after it’s been out a while”—or even, “No more.” There’s one author whose earliest books I still reread with pleasure, though I no longer get the new ones. I recognize that that writer owes me nothing. The writer is being true to self. But I feel that writer still broke my trust.

What’s happening here? There can be a lot of reasons why a once favorite author loses readers, but one of the biggies, I’ve found during many discussions with fellow readers, is disappointment in the resolution or payoff.


Readers get invested in a series, so much that what happens to the characters is nearly as engaging as following friends and family in real life. I should establish up front that I know any book’s resolution isn’t going to resonate the same for everyone—what one considers a fabulous payoff is a sharp disappointment to another—but like everything else, there are patterns.

I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss these patterns as we perceive them. (And I know we might not recognize the same patterns, but I really like seeing what others think.)

Okay, so, resolution, or payoff.

One of the ways I’ve seen it defined is: dramatic catharsis. What does that mean? There are many readers who don’t care for any aspect of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, but his essay “On Fairy Stories” has resonated with me since high school. And every time I reread it, I still agree. Here he talks about eucatastrophe.

Ursula K. Le Guin in Steering the Craft is a lot more spare about resolution and payoff, saying merely that the end should be implied in the beginning.

very intent reader

Vladimir Nabokov, about as different from these two as can be, talks in Lectures on Literature about how the book’s universe enters you and you enter it, and in the successful book, “The prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbles away with the nonego rushing in from the outside to save the prisoner—who is already dancing in the open.”

It’s interesting that both he and Tolkien talk in different ways about that hitch of the breath, the lift of the heart that one gets from a satisfying resolution.

When it doesn’t work, readers can get as angry as if they had been betrayed in real life.

“What a rip!”

“Did you ever read anything so stupid?”

more disgust

“I am SO SICK of:






*no closure





Then there’s the reader telepathy into the writer’s real motivation: “Obviously the author was sick of the whole thing and just phoned in that ending.”

I’ve been around enough writers to know that writing the end of a novel is far more frequently tough, challenging, and exalting, or emotionally exhausting, or they would have given up on the book long before.

But sometimes, I think, writers can mistake emotional catharsis for dramatic catharsis. Especially when steaming to the ending in that weird mixture of exhaustion and euphoria.

Here’s how I see the difference between the two: an emotional catharsis is primarily felt by the writer. A dramatic catharsis is also an emotional catharsis, but it is felt by the reader.

(c) Royal Holloway, University of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Royal Holloway, University of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

So for example, the random death of a protagonist five pages before the end can have shock value, which is an emotional bang, but fail dramatically, especially when there are no consequences for the other characters.

Over the years I’ve heard it said repeatedly by disgruntled readers who feel angry and cheated by a novel that brings the heroes all the way through to the end, only to be wiped out by a bus.

These readers might feel that the author sacrificed dramatic integrity to make an Important Philosophical Point, and that author might as well give up regruntlement for those readers.

In series especially, sometimes writers, in their efforts to have The Last Battle top all previous efforts, put forward a climax that is just bigger and louder and vaster (pile on the superlatives here) but otherwise pretty much the same sort of climax as previously explored.

The author might feel that tremendous weight of stress writing the details of that mega-battle, but a reader, who has followed the series faithfully through several previous megabattles, blinks through the superlatives, and might even begin to skim. The reader’s emotion doesn’t match the writer’s.

A dramatic catharsis that works for me is not just a climax with a meaner Dark Lord in a deeper dungeon prolonging the most horrible tortures evah, after the nasiest gloating speech in the history of villainous speeches, before the Sword of Light comes to the rescue (or before they all die miserably in despair).

social reading

In my own reading, I find that the best dramatic catharsis results from the protagonist gaining agency as part of their character arc. The best catharsis not only does that, but furnishes something new. Even if it’s relatively small, an insight not visible to anyone else . . . like at the end of “The Scouring of the Shire” in Lord of the Rings, when Frodo understands that in saving Middle Earth, it was not saved for him.

Compared to the blowing up of Mordor and the last-ditch saving of Gondor, this ending is very small, but the dramatic catharsis is just that much more intense a payoff—and like Le Guin says, it was set up at the very beginning of the story.

Frodo’s actions, though minimal when measured by the yardstick of violent endeavor, had tremendous impact—and his significance did not go unnoticed for all the great and powerful (though not so much in his own neighborhood!).

Frodo’s finding that after all, there was no longer a place for him in the world he tried so desperately to save is so much more satisfying than if he had been crowned king of the universe; he gave up any kind of power, but he’d gained tremendous gravitas, a kind of agency rare and poignant.

What about you? What kind of resolution works for you? What doesn’t work, and why?



Resolution or Payoffs — 22 Comments

  1. I think people’s expectations for resolutions vary with the type of novel they’re reading. If you’ve got a tightly plotted mystery novel, you’re going to want loose threads tied up, the mystery solved–that sort of satisfaction. If you’re reading something epic-scale, you’re probably going to want something epic for a climax… though I guess that’s different from resolution…. hmmm. And if you’ve got something very introspective, then some change in the character’s perceptions or outlook, some insight, may be enough of a resolution.

    The sorts of issues people have when something violates their sense of genre conventions can also come up when you read across cultures–different things can be important, and what makes a satisfactory resolution can also be different. When I read something that’s a real head scratcher for me in terms of resolution, I look back over the rest of the story and try to see if I can make sense of how it relates to what the author has been focusing on. (Sometimes this helps and sometimes it doesn’t.)

  2. I really resonate with what says in an essay, “The Radical Humanism of David Simon” here, in which he apologizes for reading Simon’s Treme wrongly, in contrast with his The Wire. It’s about, ultimately, how difficult it is to change the story-telling tropes that television and movie writing has made de rigor — though, of course, as this is fiction, it is not law.

    “His preference for subject matter is just one part of the reason widespread popularity has eluded him.

    Yes, it’s significant that he tells stories about poor and working-class as well as middle-class people, and has never had much interest in the rich, except as foils or obstacles for the less fortunate. It’s also true that he’s fascinated by the minute inner workings of institutions, and how they tend to become corrupt and inert thanks to the laziness or selfish ambition of whoever happens to be in charge. Neither of these would necessarily be considered “sexy” things to care about because they deny easy opportunities for escapism. You can’t put expensive clothes and top-dollar haircuts on your characters if the story is about how hard they have to work just to make rent. And you can’t indulge the audience’s desire to watch crusading good guys root out and defeat a handful of bad apples who are preventing an otherwise perfectly fine institution from doing good work — be it the police department and school system of The Wire or the state and local government and construction industries of Treme or the United States Marine Corps of Generation Kill.

    But more significant than all that, I suspect, is the way that Simon insists we care about things and people that American entertainment’s clichéd storytelling habits have no use for. Characters who help or hinder the white hero or heroine in a single scene of a major motion picture get not just scenes but whole story lines in Simon’s TV shows. Sometimes they are major characters.”

    • Just to be devil’s advocate there is precedent in story telling in which at the end they are all dead: the conclusion of the King Arthur saga, that final battle that ends forever the brief and shining Arthurian moment (though then in some versions the king is only sleeping and will return got tacked on), as well as in many an epic such as the Iliad. And there’s Ragnarok, foundational to the world view of the people who ultimately made Arthur. Which is why, perhaps, so much of Tolkien’s works prior to LoTR has very dark endings (some of which are referred to in LoTR, in songs and ballads and tale telling), such as The Children of Húrin — which I actually liked very much, though the antisemitic caricature of one of the villains was difficult to handle. And Tolkien did attempt a “Fall of Arthur.”

      Though I, for one, don’t think this is what Sherwood was referring to when all the characters are dead at the end of a book. 🙂

      • When one reads ‘the Arthurian tragedy’ one pretty much knows going in what is going to happen. Ditto ‘Ragnarok’!

        I wonder if part of the disappointment would be a sense of bait and switch?

        • And, similarly, a lot of zombie fiction. I very much enjoyed Mira Grant’s “The Last Stand of the California Browncoats,” despite going, “They’re all gonna die, they’re all gonna die, they’re all gonna die!” the entire time. But if they’d all died and I had not expected it, I would definitely have felt betrayed and unhappy, and probably have tossed the book across the room.

  3. I have to admit to being one of those readers who very much dislikes inconclusive or purely unhappy endings (e.g. the characters that the author invites readers to invest themselves in all die). If I think that’s the choice an author may make, I will skip to the very end of the book before starting just to try to get a sense of the end game. Not that I blame the author for that choice–that’s the story he or she has to tell. But I personally don’t want to spend my time getting sucked into a book for a payoff that I know will disappoint me.

    It’s one thing to be critical of the choices an author makes, but what’s interesting to me is how many readers seem to get MAD at an author when they don’t like what they read. That seems pointless to me. Authors aren’t writing to match your tastes–they are writing to put a story they have in their heads out on the page for others to share. You may or may not like the final product, but that isn’t the author’s responsibility.

    But then, I was an English major in my misspent youth, so I probably tend to engage with books a bit differently than other people.

    • Good point. There are so many readers who think all philosophies expressed in a book are the author’s, or that experiences of the book are an author’s. (Conversely, though this is way off topic, it’s been interesting to see how cheated readers have felt when some author pens fiction about a subject and then sets up a persona for the author that is equally fictitious. When their cover is blown (no, she is not a scarred African American kid escaped from the drug scene of East L.A. but a middle-aged, white woman sitting in an expensive high rise in New York City) they feel they have been rooked. Even though the book was fiction!

    • I agree with Sherry. I don’t think the author has any duty to tell the story a certain way for readers. It’s one thing not to like a book, but this whole idea of betrayal seems over the top to me.

      • And yet I see that repeatedly, readers feel betrayed, an emotional response that seems to be akin to falling in love with characters. It’s odd, it’s even messy, but it’s there.

  4. When I was a kid, I just used to like Happy Endings, but after watching years of TV and movies whose point seems to be to see some poor dumb schmuck go through bad and worse-than-that and even-worse-than-that I have a few more qualifiers. Most of the time, it seems to me that the PDS is going through stuff designed to make you feel good about your own drab and wretched existence; as if the whole point of the story is that if someone can go through this and overcome, why can’t you just stop whining and do the same? They don’t learn anything about themselves (mostly because they were pretty good in the first place and the failure to understand this was not theirs, but the surrounding characters’). And a real happy ending has come to mean more to me than something that just demonstrates how to get your own way in an argument or wiping that look of smug superiority off of someone’s face. It has to do with (dare I say it?) actually growing into a better or more caring or even more competent human being. Or learning, as Frodo did, that being a Hero is not necessarily what you thought it might be. Or even learning that you should help people instead of seeing everyone else as a Bad Guy to be overcome. I personally think (and you can tell me I’m wrong) that this attitude so widely promulgated is part of why things are getting so very violent, as the word Compromise becomes a very dirty word indeed.

    Besides that, I am just damn tired of all the gratuitous yuck and outright cruelty that most of the filmmakers seem to outline so lovingly–where just being able to crush whatever is seen as the Bad Guy is all the happy ending anyone ever needs (as if that doesn’t set you up to be the Bad Guy for someone else to crush in an endless cycle of violence!). Heck, it has gotten to the point that if all I want is a Happy Ending, I just turn the station over to a cooking show!

  5. The book that has most disappointed me lately was The Flamethrowers. Early on, the main character, a young woman artist, is riding a large motorcycle across the country. She’s planning to do a land speed record test in the desert, and doing it as a kind of art, not as motorcycle racing. It’s the 1970s.

    “Oh, my,” I thought. “It’s a literary novel about a woman with agency, instead of the usual stuff about a young woman artist having an affair with an older male artist.” And then it turned out to be a story about a young woman artist having an affair with an older male artist and I was disappointed. Yes, her character goes out and gets involved with Italian revolutionaries, but it’s more or less in stupid response to her lover.

    Obviously that’s the novel Rachel Kushner wanted to write. I was just hoping she’d written a different one.

  6. It has always fascinated me that an entire genre is defined by the endings. Romance novels, by RWA definition, must end happily, with hero and heroine either Happily Ever After (HEA) or Happy For Now (HFN).
    You can have mystery novels where the criminal is never brought to book, or large areas of the mystery are left in the dark. You can have SF that is notably un-sfnal — there’s an entire conflict about this going on right now. And fantasy is such a nice loose genre that you can have fantasy that’s nearly impossible to distinguish from a common or garden novel. But if the book does not end HEA or HFN, then it cannot be a romance novel.

  7. While overall, I tend to find myself more satisfied with “happy endings”, that mostly means that I like the story to have a satisfying conclusion. Maybe I didn’t see it coming, but when it arrives, I can nod and see where it came from.

    I do not like endings where something springs up out of the blue and either saves or destroys the heroes. And, I have read (and been disappointed with) a lot of those types of books lately.

    I like the “heroes” to have earned that ending, to have grown, to have been shaped by the events of the story and yet, to have shaped that ending in some way themselves.

    To me, that’s resolution.

  8. I want the good to end happily and the bad unhappily.
    I echo what Asakiyume said above about mysteries–one of my favorite genres. To satisfy me at least justice must be not only done but seen to be done and the loose ends tied up and any clues validated if only in retrospect. The conclusions of the best mysteries surprise and are delightful because they feel logical and inevitable. Anything else is just a novel with a murder.
    I also agree with Janice Smith that the ending needs to be “earned” by both characters and plot. Sure–go ahead and surprise me, but I want also to go “ooh, that’s why . . .” about earlier developments in the story.
    I loathe the futility ending where the characters have suffered and striven and . . . nothing changes.

  9. Being a generally cheerful and optimistic person, I like stories with happy endings, or at least where the resolution holds some degree of optimism or hope that the characters’ situation has improved. I am definitely not one for “life sucks, everyone dies” sorts of resolutions.

    One thing that annoys me, particularly in urban fantasy/magic realism is what I call “deus ex machina” endings. Basically, where the main character defeats the big bad either literally by divine intervention or by suddenly discovering a new expansion of their abilities that had not previously been hinted at by the story. (Another way to describe this is “the author painted themselves into a corner, so they decided to blow out the wall”.)

    • Yes! In a very old writing advice column I saw once, this sort of ending was referred to as “Once I leaped from the pit . . .”