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What would you do if you faced the same dilemma Sir Arthur Conan Doyle faced when he actually wanted to end "Sherlock Holmes" which was at it's peak of popularity with the public? What would you do if you wanted to end your story in one way but you knew that the public would want a different ending?

For ex: If you wanted to end your popular story / series in a tragedy, would you still go ahead if you knew that your target audience wanted a happy ending?

  • I think this is off-topic and should probably be closed. From the help pages: "You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page." – Neil Fein Oct 20 '16 at 3:06
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    I think this is a practical, answerable question, and it is an actual problem many writers face. Maybe the answers could be improved – I'm thinking about starting a bounty –, but I don't think this is off topic. – user5645 Oct 20 '16 at 14:20
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    What, in this example, is the reason that the author wants it to end one way and the readers another? Has the author failed to make his desired ending appropriate and palatable? Is he being deliberately contrary, trying to do the opposite of what's expected? The answer depends on what your actual goal is. – Standback Oct 20 '16 at 19:32
  • @what It is a dilemma that writers face but it's also a vague discussion-starter and not a specific question. – Neil Fein Oct 20 '16 at 22:02
  • Can the user who asked the question clarify if this is a situation they're currently facing? If so, I'd like to get this clarified. – Neil Fein Oct 20 '16 at 22:03

12 Answers 12

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Let's come at this from a different angle. There is a difference between the ending the reader wants and the ending that they find satisfying. An happy ending can be emotionally empty. A sad ending can be emotionally fulfilling. (There is a reason, a profound reason, why we listen to sad songs. They confirm our perception of the sadness of life, and therefore make our essential loneliness bearable.)

The problem with the death of Holmes was not that it killed a popular character, but that it did it in a way that was utterly untrue to the characters of both Holmes and Moriarty. It was an unsatisfying death. If Conan-Doyle had given him a satisfying death, a death that made emotional sense, there would have been national mourning, but not national outrage.

So, give your character an ending that is true. Happy or sad does not matter. What matters is the emotional completeness of the ending. We can weep for joy or for sorrow with equal depth of feeling, but a trivial ending, whether happy or sad, gives no satisfaction.

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I think this is a false dichotomy.

To be sure, there are many reasons to write. You may be writing only for your own amusement or catharsis, in which case merely getting your thoughts down on paper will suffice and you will have no need to consider anybody else.

And to be sure, you can write purely for the market. If the only goal is to make money by writing, and you don't have anything you are burning to say to the world, you can write formula fiction for companies like Harlequin or Disney. Don't kid yourself that this is easy. The formulas are exacting, the competition is fierce, and the pay rate as low. But if that is what you want, you can do it.

But if you want to write because you have something to say, then you have to think about both your message and your audience. Communication is about finding a way to deliver your message in a way that the other person is willing to receive and able to understand.

If you aim is to say the thing that burns in you to be expressed, then you have to follow your own ideas, but you also have to think about the audience. It is about how to make your ideas palatable to the audience you want to reach.

No one is obliged to listen to you. To gain a hearing, you have to meet your audience's needs before your own. But to get you message heard, you also have to stay true to the thing you want to say. So it really is not one thing or the other; it's both.

  • I was very much torn between awarding the bounty to either Filip or papidave. Both conclude that the ending must – or will, if you are open and don't try to force anything – follow naturally from the story, but both argue for that conclusion in different ways. Filip maintains that there is a truth to a story that is independent its author, while papidave suggests that you can and must set up reader expectations to fit the end. Personally I think that the story is not independent of its author, but its truth is that of the authors subconscious. [contd.] – user5645 Oct 27 '16 at 9:40
  • [contd.] However that may be, both Filip and papidave essentially move the conflict between reader and audience from the ending to the story itself. They say that the ending must fit the story. But Filip's author is now in conflict about which story to tell: one that the audience wants to read, or one that the author wants to write. And papidave's author is in conflict about which expectations to set up: those that the audience enjoy, or those that the author enjoys. So, while both answers are enlightening, both do not actually answer the question. [contd.] – user5645 Oct 27 '16 at 9:41
  • [contd.] I fundamentally disagree with Mark Baker's assertion, in the accepted answer, that we love sad songs and therefore are satisfied by sad stories. For some people that may be true, and maybe they are even the majority. I do not know. For me this is untrue. I despise sad songs and their prevalence is a reason I have stopped listening to the radio and barely listen to music at all. But his first answer – which is the most upvoted – is very close to the answer I would have given myself. [contd.] – user5645 Oct 27 '16 at 9:41
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    [contd.] For most writers, writing is an act of communication. Everyone who aims to publish their writing wants to be read. And we all hope for some kind of reply. We put something of who we are into our writing, and we want it to be appreciated and loved. Writing, in essence, is like a relationship. And like any long-term partnership it needs both parties' willingness and ability to respond to the other's needs. Some call this compromise, and it has the bad aftertaste of compromising your vision, but I call it love. [contd.] – user5645 Oct 27 '16 at 9:41
  • [contd.] The opposite of being in a relationship is lonely masturbation. And the question, asked here, is basically what you enjoy more: perfect stimulation by your own hand, or a mutual relationship. For me, the answer is easy: I do not want to live my life alone. I want to be in contact with other people. And to facilitate that contact and make it as satisfying for both the other persons and myself, I have decided, as Mark Baker puts it, to meet the audience's needs – in a way that is true to myself. It is a difficult balance, and sometimes painful, but ultimately satisfying. – user5645 Oct 27 '16 at 9:42
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Another thing to consider when writing your ending is not what you want, nor what you think the audience wants, but rather what does the story want? I am a firm believer that if you tell a story well, the ending will feel right to you and to the reader alike. If instead you get to the end of your tale and the ending you want doesn't "fit" what you want, perhaps the expectations you set up in the first 90% of the book don't fit what you want, either.

This is an example of "fulfilling promises to your reader" that the folks at Writing Excuses talk about all the time, e.g. here. It won't be easy to rewrite your story to make different promises, but I don't think you will ever be satisfied long-term with a story and an ending that don't fit well. On the plus side, there is at least one person who wants to see that ending, and if you put the right tale in front of that ending, you may discover there are many more.

  • The good folks at Writing Excuses do give a solid advice (between plugging in their own works every 45sec. :-) or so), but the thing is that the readers might be disappointed with you even if you are sure that you did great with promise fulfillment. Perhaps the GRRM's way (who seemingly doesn't give a damn about the reader) is better? He is doing all right, or so it seems ;-) – Lew Oct 20 '16 at 21:31
  • I love your answer but chose to award one given by Mark Baker. See my comments under his answer for my reasons. – user5645 Oct 27 '16 at 9:43
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Stories are like puzzles. You start by outlining the whole thing, than add one piece after the other, taking care that the new pieces fit the work you have already created. The ending of a story is the last piece you insert into your puzzle: It completes the picture, and only when it is in place will you be able to understand the story in its entirety. Conversely, the last piece of your puzzle -- your ending -- is so strongly confined by what you have already laid out that there's hardly any room left for eventualities. Try to cram in a piece that does not fit and you will ruin the entire puzzle.

Observe that this has nothing to do with the puzzle designer wanting something else than you, the puzzle solver. Because it is a puzzle and unless it is broken or you mixed it up with another puzzle or you lost a piece, the last piece will fit in. Of course, you are free to not like the puzzle once it is finished. You are allowed to critize what you see and think: "I would have preferred another picture". But this has nothing to do with the puzzle per se -- rather, it is because your taste is different from the taste of the puzzle designer.

I believe (imagine that word underlined twice, because I honestly cannot prove this claim) that stories are to a degree independent of the storyteller. Stories are abstract entities that are just there. You, as the storyteller, can not create them -- you discover them. Because of this, what storytelling really boils down to for me is honesty. You have your idea, you have your characters, and while writing down your story or telling it in any other way, you discover it, piece by piece, like a puzzle, until it is complete. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to tell when a story is complete. To me, it's an abstract feeling that all the elements fit together and that the story I tell is as independent as possible from what I want for the story. Only when I feel that everything that happens in the story is necessary, natural to the characters, and a consequence of what has happened before, does the story feel right. As long as I read a scene, frown and think: "Something else could happen here", I'm not done discovering the story. (And the fun thing is: When my test readers critize my work, it's usually because of things that I had not fully discovered yet.) This act of discovering of what really happens in your story is all about honesty -- you need to be honest to yourself and to your characters. This can be very hard, because you do have a vision for your story and sometimes this vision blinds you for the truth of your story. But my experience is that not seeking this inherent truth of a story and settling for something that you forced onto the story leads to unconvincing stories in the end(1).

And now: The readers. I think, this is very simple. Readers are extremely good at detecting inconsistencies in your story. In fact, they are much better at it than you are, because they do not share your story vision and hence can not be blinded by it. Consequently, when you write something that is not honest to your story, your readers will find it, and they will not like it.

This, however, is independent of the point in the story at which the dishonesty occurs. It can be the ending, but it need not be.

Side note: What does "writing for an audience" actually mean? Does it mean to write a book that sells well to a specific target audience? If this is the case, "writing for an audience" is independent of the ending of your story. I do not buy books, because I know the ending and like it. I buy them, because I am interested in the story that they advertise and I am curious about how the story solves the problem that it poses. Solving this problem may take several books in a series, but in the end, I want to know how it is dealt with. In agreement with the puzzle analogy above, this finale of a series should be well prepared and inevitable. If the story is told well and captured my interest throughout an entire series of books, I do not see how it could disappoint me -- unless it does not fit the preceding story.

Bringing all of this together, I would answer your question as follows: I think your question is not whether the ending of your story should cater to the tastes of your audience. The ending of a story is the inevitable result of the story itself -- changing it means to change everything that happened before. Effectively, you will end up a different story.

Rather, your question is whether you should write your stories for your audience or for yourself. And this question, you have to answer for yourself (as other commentators already observed).


(1) Example: Stephen King's story "The Secret Window". The ending of this book feels like an enormous cheat. When I read it, I was under the impression that King was scared to write down the ending that the entire story was pointing to -- because it is ugly and bleak and horrible and hardly anybody wants to read a story like that. However, giving his story an unexpected "happy" ending turned out just as desastrous. The reason is that it was not fitting the preceding 90% of the story. It felt wrong on every level, and I felt betrayed and lied to by Stepehen King. The fact that I immediately remembered the "Secret Window" -- a story that I first saw in its movie adaption twelve years ago and read shortly after -- when I saw your question tells you something about how lasting the bad impression was that I took from the book. If I hadn't known Stephen King to be an occasional storytelling genius when I read "The Secret Window", I would have never touched another Stephen King book in my life.

  • "...stories are to a degree independent of the storyteller..." Could not agree with you more. Mine tend to run away all the time. – Lew Oct 21 '16 at 13:23
  • I love your answer but chose to award one given by Mark Baker. See my comments under his answer for my reasons. – user5645 Oct 27 '16 at 9:43
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I would probably act as Doyle did.
1) Certain of my popularity as an author, I would kill the character and hope people started reading my other books. 2) Gradually become frustrated. 3) Eventually write another Holmes story, possibly while grumbling.

Oh, to have such a problem.

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You have two reasons to study medicine: 1-heal and help people, 2-buy a house. The same applies to writing. You can do it to please the others (earning something from others) or enjoy writing (do without expecting rewards).

I am a supporter of a world of collaborative people. But we are a minority. Most people prefer doing things that give rewards.

  • By helping others you are getting a reward because it pleases you. Just because something isn't profitable doesn't mean it isn't rewarding. If you derive pleasure, satisfaction, meaning, etc, from something that is a reward. – inappropriateCode Oct 14 '16 at 7:32
  • @inappropriateCode Agreed, that's precisely the reason of the second paragraph on my response. But again, we are a minority, who enjoy -and incidentally earn- from healing or writing. – RodolfoAP Oct 27 '16 at 1:52
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In my opinion you must do what you think is the better, look empty but i have seen so many authors writing wonderfull books and don't know when to stop.

I ll be sad but i ll respect the choice of an author to end his story than continue to writing only for cash and be mediocre at end. 5 or 6 names come in my mind of authors i was blind of admiration and now i can't even read again one of their books.

Don't rush the things and do what you feel is the better.

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Terry Pratchett once said something along the lines of 'If I'd listened to the public I'd have written twenty Rincewind books'. And he would have had an audience for that, but he'd have been a different kind of writer. Some writers clearly respond to the demand for more of the same to the point where even those who clamoured for it find it stale, Look at some of Janet Evanovich's Amazon reviews for later Stephanie Plum books for example. Other writers seem to mix and match: Charlaine Harris gave readers all the Eric they wanted but paired Sookie up with the guy she always planned. So I think the answer is that it depends what kind of writer you are and how you balance your trust in your readers' ability to trust you.

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There are those that claim that bestsellers cannot be made. They advise you to write the story that feels most relevant to yourself, because otherwise your writing will feel void and empty.

Then there are all the professional authors and editors, whose daily work it is to make bestellers. They manage to understand the desires of their target audience and turn a mediocre manuscript into a bestselling book.

The first is called art. Sometimes it results in fantastic mega-blockbuster success. But most often it is appreciated only by your friends (if you have any). The second is called all kind of names, and it often does not reach the New York Times bestseller list, but it consistently makes its authors enough money to lead a comfortable life, and their fans love them well.

What path you choose, is up to you.


I take a middle path: I do consider what readers want (see Genre conventions: Which end do readers expect?) and attempt to reconcile that with how I feel about the end myself. You need to be creative about how you find a solution that satisfies both you and your audience, but to me that kind of problem is what makes writing fun.

A vision without a focus is just rambling. It is your attempt to communicate with your readers that gives your writing that focus.

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Allow me to provide a wholly practical opinion on the matter.

At any point in your writting, what's more important to you? The money, or your pride? There's nothing wrong with either. You certainly need to pay the bills, but it would be nice to be honored for a marvelous creation. (Obviously, it would be nice to do both... but that would kinda negate the purpose for asking your question).

Therefore, if paying the bills is more important than your pride, you write for public demand.

If you want to (e.g.) write for an award (Pulitzer Prize, maybe?) then you need to write for your pride.

IMHO, writers often need to do a little of both. It's like actors/actresses contracting for both indie films and summer blockbusters. The former often showcases their full talents, but are usually only seen by people who attend the Sundance Film Festival. The later pays the bills, but rarely showcases full talent.

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It think this is a question that most writers face and struggle with finding an answer to. Unfortunately the current answers are mostly the private opinions of the answerers.

Well, that was exactly the question, was it not? I quote:

If you wanted to end your popular story / series in a tragedy, would you still go ahead if you knew that your target audience wanted a happy ending?

And this is what the answers are trying to address. My personal favorite is @papidave's, but the fact that I can relate to it, does not mean that everyone else can.

Maybe we can come up with an answer that can help others to find their own answer? An answer that explains the pros and cons of both decisions and shows up a way to reconcile them.

I do not think that this question has a single answer. The pros and cons of such decisions would depend on the infinite variety of personal and professional circumstances, surrounding the inciting conflict of interests, and any attempt to summarize the options would border on speculation.

I would follow the story and see where it leads me. Any attempts to bend the ending to please anyone else would ring false to me, and, therefore, work against the story.

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Well I would say that you should make people want to read the book.Normally I would say follow your instinct but if that would make people not want to read it then I say listen to the public. ;)

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