Some may say that they like a "happy ending" or perhaps a "tragedy" or anyone of the different classifications, but if you simply shift things around at the last minute, will the story be satisfying? Let's say our hero must sacrifice himself to save the world, but then, due to some random interference that is totally improbable, he lives. The ending is happy, but are even your happy ending fans going to enjoy it? Probably not. Why? Because it's off... Let's say boy meets girl, they have their issues, but then in the end they kiss and love conquers all...until that semi-truck comes barreling down the street and smooshes the whole wedding party. Oops. Will our tragedy fans appreciate the irony and relish in the fact that they found love before they died...doubt it. It's too forced.
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Of Course the ship sinks in the end...
As readers, we want the same things no matter how the "ending" is resolved. (Of course there are no endings really, the book just stops and we have to live with that.) For one thing, we want the story's resolution to be probable, somewhat logical. If it's not a realistic chain of events, or at least within our willingness to believe could have happened, it won't sit right. People can't just jump out of a plane without a parachute and land on their feet, unless there is something in the story line that has prepared us for the possibility.
To have a satisfying ending, we need to have all the loose threads tied up. We don't want to wonder what happened to So-and-So, who was an important supporting character. Ending up with questions is a sure-fire way to frustrate us.
We want the message to come through all the way through and we want an appropriate resolution. If the message is about self sacrifice, then we can live with the fact that the main character dies if suits the story. Even "happy ending" fans can love it because the satisfaction comes not from how the story ends but how fitting it is. Is the message watered down or is the ending completely off the mark? If so, we'll feel it when we get there, even if the reader isn't experienced enough to know how to articulate it.
Be them happy, melancholy, tragic, or just...ambiguous, the final pages must be earned, plausible, and represent a proper resolution or individual tastes won't matter- everyone will agree on one thing. The book stinks.
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Tell me, what kind of ending do you like? We've all read books with endings that have stuck with us- for better or worse. Help me out by sharing your experiences!