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I am occasionally slightly frustrated by how neatly stories wrap up the major storylines. Mostly because life rarely ties things up in a bow for us!

I have a story I've been considering, where the main character identifies a conspiracy, and spends the majority of the story exploring it / attempting to expose it but is then killed / dies before anything can come of the work he has put into it.

There will likely be other conflicts occurring, other things will be resolved as the story progresses. But I want the reader at the end to be thinking 'yeah, but what about the conspiracy!'

Is there anything I should be particularly cautious of in this story? Are there (m)any examples of that sort of abrupt ending and abandoned conflict.

(as well as any thoughts you might have!)

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  • The movie "The Ghost" (with Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan) deals with this issue. Whilst not necessarily an exceptional or memorable film, it deals with the issue of leaving the main story unresolved, but not robbing the audience of an emotional payoff. Might be worth a watch for research purposes. Jan 11, 2016 at 9:26

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From the tone of your post, I assume that the point is that the character's death is unrelated to the conspiracy. Having him murdered by the conspirators, thus proving the truth of his suspicions, is well within the usual conventions of fiction.

Assuming the poor guy just gets run over or something, John Yorke's Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them might help you. While discussing the random death of (spoiler below)

Omar Bradley in The Wire,

Yorke writes,

… [It] works precisely because it's so narratively wrong; it undercuts the classic hero's journey by employing all its conventions up to the point of sudden, tawdry and unexpected death. Effectively saying this is a world where such codes don't operate …

That last phrase is the key to making this type of ending work. You have to replace the thing the reader thought he was going to experience (triumphant success, tragic failure) with something even more emotionally charged, usually the awful reminder that in real life real death frequently turns up without an appointment.

The thing to avoid is looking like you, the author, got a phone call offering more remunerative work and wrapped up the story in five minutes flat, not caring that you'd left the conspiracy plot line unresolved.

To do this, you could use the conventions of fiction even while planning to subvert the biggest one. Insert into your story foreshadowings of sudden death and great plans never to be completed. Robert Burn's poem To A Mouse or chapter 12, verses 16-21 of Luke's gospel might be studied for quotes or metaphors.

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    That is a really nice answer, I imagine his death would be suspicious to the reader, but purely accidental in his universe. I imagine there would be occasional references to David and Goliath scope of his undertaking (to continue the Biblical sourcing!) I guess it is just following the rules of giving clues along the way, so it isn't a complete surprise, but hopefully just enough of one to make it work!
    – Michael B
    Jan 9, 2016 at 12:24
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Easiest answer I can give you is that the journey to the lack of resolved conflict has to be satisfying. There needs to be some emotional payoff to the reader. Otherwise, we get pissed that we've wasted our money and time on YOUR book. In fact, I've read stories which went ker-blooey at the end in terms of any form of satisfaction, and I usually never read that author's works again.

For example, if Hamlet simply died without exposing his father's killer, what's the point? But (not in Shakespeare's version of the story...) what if at the end, we discovered that the uncle was tricked into poisoning the king, but chose to profit from it anyway? It's still satisfying even though Hamlet's dead because the corrupt new king got whacked, but... the conspiracy is still out there. There's just no one left to figure out who the trickster was.

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