Game of Thrones & The Case Against Closure in Fiction

Any Game of Thrones fans out there? No spoilers, but… last night’s episode? All I gotta say about that final scene is… damn, girl. Maybe you oughta see a doctor about that!


We’ll get back to Game of Thrones in a moment (spoiler-free of course). I promise this is all related, tangentially, as most of my thoughts are, and as most of George R.R. Martin’s characters are.

See what I did right there? Tying it all together like that? Yeah, me neither. Anyway, one of my favorite things about writing for teens is that they’re passionate readers, they know how to get in touch with their favorite authors, and they aren’t afraid to ask questions and share their own ideas (that’s more like 3 or 4 favorite things, but like my thoughts and the cast of Martin’s books, they’re all related, so let’s just roll with it).

I love hearing from readers. They ask about whether the cupcakes featured in Bittersweet are real recipes (yes), or whether Twenty Boy Summer’s Zanzibar Bay is a real place (no). They want to know if Fixing Delilah’s Patrick is based on a real person (in part, and I totally married him). They seek writing and publication advice (don’t give up!), or details on how a book becomes a movie (magic spells are definitely involved). But the number one question I get, hands down, is…

Will you write a sequel to Twenty Boy Summer?

Twenty Boy SummerEveryone wants to know what happens next: do certain characters ever meet up again? Do Anna and Frankie go back to California the following summer? Can the girls rebuild their friendship and trust each other again after everything that happened? Can Sam’s family buy a house from Anna’s father in their same neighborhood? Is it possible that Matt’s death was misreported and he’s living on a remote island somewhere totally safe, waiting for Anna to find him? Can Matt come back from the dead like in Pet Sematary or in some kind of secret government experiment?

All of these questions are from actual reader emails, and though some are more serious than others, the root of each is the same: desire for closure.

Closure in Fiction and in Life

We all long for closure in stories, for the mostly happily ever after, for resolutions and answers when we reach THE END. When we get attached to characters, as I am with the people who populate Game of Thrones, we follow them through the journey of the story, and then we want to know how their life turns out after the last page. It’s the mark of a great tale, right? If I’m still thinking about the characters long after that final passage, if I’m wondering how things turn out for them, then I know that a book really affected me. And I’m always honored and humbled to learn that my books have affected other readers in this way—enough that they want to know what happens next in the lives of my characters.

I like happy endings. I like to know that things worked out for my favorite fictional people just as I want things to work out for my favorite real life people.

But real life isn’t like that, is it? We don’t always get to know how things turn out for everyone we’ve ever loved. We don’t always get the final say. We don’t always get any say, because unfortunately, endings are just that—endings. And they’re often abrupt and unpredictable.

Everything—even the best and seemingly most unshakeable things—end.

Elrond is kind of a downer Dad in this scene from the film adaptation of Tolkien’s The Two Towers, warning his daughter (an immortal elf) against holding out for her true love (a man). Elrond obviously missed elf-parenting class the day they taught the critical lesson: when fathers tell their daughters what to do, daughters will do the exact opposite. Still, his words are true. No matter the outcome of Arwen and Aragorn’s story, one day, their relationship will end.

Personally, I’m still bewildered by certain friendships in my life that ended; people I’d naively and hopefully assumed would be there forever simply… weren’t. Maybe they faded away, or maybe I did. Maybe we all changed and no longer recognized one another. Maybe we all had intentional, irrefutable reasons to walk away. I’m not sure, because in most cases, I didn’t get the luxury of closure. It makes me think of missing persons or funerals without a physical body. There’s always some question, some doubt, some stupid hopeless hope that it didn’t really happen that way. That it could still change.

Closure, unfortunately, is not one of life’s guarantees. It’s a luxury, like I said. Never required. Rarely offered. Whether a relationship ends because of death, a breakup, an insurmountable disagreement, a misunderstanding, or as Elrond so eloquently put, the slow decay of time, it’s still an ending. And in the absence of closure, endings usher in uncertainty. Was there something else I could’ve said, something else I could’ve done if only I’d had the chance? One more day, one more conversation, one more hug? It’s not fair, it just… is. Sometimes all we can do is accept it (or go crazy trying to deny it, which I don’t recommend).

Game of Thrones: You’re Killin’ Me, George!

Like Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, the HBO television series based on the fictional series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, gets it absolutely right. We’re currently in season two on the show (I haven’t read the books yet because books with tiny fonts and thousands of pages totally intimidated me, but I really want to read them), and pretty much every weekend I want to phone up George and be all, “Oh. My. God! WTF just happened, George? Why do you insist on making me cry, like, every single effing episode? Why do you keep killing and tormenting the characters I adore? How can you put them in those horrible situations? Why aren’t the good guys saving the day? Argh!”

I get seriously mad at the guy, but honestly, he’s a freaking genius and a wonderful writer. He gets the characters in my head, in my heart. He makes me fall in love with them and then he yanks them away or knocks them down without any consideration for my feelings.

Sound familiar?

When was the last time you were given an opportunity to halt or reverse the death of a loved one? Did anyone consult with you before breaking your heart with that breakup? Before evaporating that best friendship you wanted to believe was forever? Before life yanked the rug out from beneath your feet and stomped on your fingers?

On the surface, Game of Thrones—particularly the HBO interpretation—is fraught with intense violence and sex. Honestly, there are a lot of boobs on that show, and sword fights, among other things. But it’s neither the brutal acts nor the nude buffet that most of us relate to; it’s the emotional aftermath. The sudden ends, the confusion, the heartache, the raw unmet desire, the lack of closure. Most of us have never witnessed the brutal decapitation of a loved one, for example, but haven’t we all wished for one more chance, one more day to say the important things? An opportunity to make our case, to fight for it?

How many times have you actually gotten that chance?

Life isn’t fair or logical. Martin understands that. Tolkein did, too, though his story was much less brutal. In both cases, I was hooked. Lord of the Rings lives on for me, long after reading the books and seeing the movies a bazillion times. I still think about the characters, still imagine what their lives are like now. As for Game of Thrones? Every Sunday night leaves me upset and enraged or plain old freaked out, and Martin has created a loyal fan for life—enough to make me get over my issue with small-print adult books, happy endings or not.

Speaking of Happy Endings… What About Them?

All of this isn’t to say that storybook characters (and their loyal fans!) don’t deserve happy endings. Many fictional heroes emerge stronger and wiser after surviving the external challenges of a story. They’ve overcome their great weaknesses, found hidden strengths and allies, and slayed their literal and figurative dragons (especially in young adult stories, where coming of age is a paramount internal theme). Maybe they’ve also discovered the buried treasure, snagged the girl, saved humankind from utter extinction.

Even so, “happy ending” is a misnomer. The end of a story doesn’t mark the end of a character’s life or the lives of all those she impacted along the way. It’s just a happy moment, and life is full of them, just as it’s full of heartache. Neither is forever—they’re just for now. Remember Frodo in The Return of the King, that scene in the harbor? “We set out to save the Shire, Sam. And it has been saved… But not for me.”

Layered with happiness and regret, love and loss, creation and destruction. Like life.

Absolutely beautiful. Like life.

Your Assignment

Writers, take a look at your current project. Are you tying everything up too neatly for your characters? Are you resolving every thread, addressing every possible outcome? Giving your hero everything she’s ever dreamed of, leaving nothing left for her to fight for? To desire? Take another look. See if you can find a few places to leave things undone. Not dropped or forgotten, but uncertain. Unresolved. Life is messy and unfair as often as it’s amazing. Let us feel the whole range of it on the page. Give us something to wonder about later, long after we’ve closed the book.

Always leave room for a sequel—if not on paper, than in your readers’ imaginations.

Readers, how do you feel about closure? Do you like loose ends, the sometimes unfair twists and turns of life, or do you prefer the safety net of happily ever after in your fiction? What are some of your favorite books? Do they tie up all the threads, or leave you wanting more? Share your spoiler-free thoughts in the comments!

15 thoughts on “Game of Thrones & The Case Against Closure in Fiction

  1. I’ve only read the first book–A Game of Thrones–and so glad that I did. The series is spectacular, but as usual, not as good as the book. I’m watching the second HBO series now and hoping I’m not missing too much by not having read the second book. Martin knows how to write story, characters, create tension, has mastered world building. He is just as good as Tolkien. I mean, reading that book was an experience. I was living in Winterfell most of the time, even when I wasn’t reading. That’s magic.
    Twenty Boy Summer? had me at the kiss in the kitchen. But apart from that, I admired how your story was so genuine. It lives. When I think about your story, the thing that sticks is the relationships. I’m glad you left it up to us readers to create an ending for your characters. Some stories require closure, I think. Every story demands something different, and you got yours right. 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your kind words about TBS, Sarah! 🙂

      I really am looking forward to diving into the Game of Thrones books. I love his world building too. It will be fun to read them as both a reader and a writer.

  2. As a reader, I have to say I fall somewhere in between wanting closure and not. If written well, you can leave some loose ends for me to mull over and come up with my own conclusions as long as you don’t leave it all up to my interpretation. What I dislike most is when the seemingly impossible situation works out too neatly. For instance, Breaking Dawn. HATED IT! Won’t go into details, in case someone out there has not read it yet. She tried to hard to have a happy ending for all involved and it just got ridiculous. If a silly ending is the only way to tie up all loose ends…then give me loose ends.

    • I totally agree with you about Breaking Dawn, Ali! In fact, I almost mentioned that as an example in the post. So glad you brought it up. You’re right–it was way too tied up in a perfect little bow at the end for every single character. I would’ve loved to see a little more realistic grit considering the situation.

  3. I’m with Ali. I’d rather have loose ends than a contrived “perfect” ending. You’re right on, Sarah, in that life is never like that. Like you said, it’s full of happy moments, but there is no happy “ending” per se. My ideal book ending is where I feel satisfaction in knowing that the right and just thing happened with the characters. I like bittersweet endings (no pun intended. Okay, maybe a little pun intended), where justice prevails or whatever, but something has been lost or sacrificed.

    I haven’t started watching Game of Thrones YET, but it’s on my list. I have a feeling I’m about to become obsessed…

  4. Loved this post. Stacie’s right; you are one smart cookie! I’m on the shelf about happy endings. When it comes to a classic romantic comedy, I have to admit that I want some lovin’ tied up with a bow. Then again, My Best Friend’s Wedding had a brilliant ending: the protagonist doesn’t get the boy, but what she deserves (okay, she regains her dignity and possibly learns a little about love, but that’s not nearly as good as snagging Dermot Mulroney), yet we viewers still get that fairy tale ending. Cameron Diaz wins out – but she’s so lovable you can’t hate her for it – and Julia gets to whiz around the dance floor with Rupert Everett (gay, but so yummy). Plus, there’s that promise in the air that Julia will one day love again now that she’s learned to be vulnerable.

    Still, I guarantee you that if there had been a sequel to the movie, Cameron and Dermot would have been on the rocks; Julia would have forgotten all the lessons she learned in the first film and would have been plotting to steal Dermot for herself; and Rupert Everett would have been replaced with Neil Patrick Harris.

    But to your very valid point, Sarah, I agree with leaving a few strands untucked. I was a little disappointed that the final Harry Potter book included an epilogue – 19 years in the future. Was it truly meant to wrap up the futures of the characters we’d grown to love over the last seven books, or was it meant to be a glimpse into a future series, in which evil returns, this time battled by Harry, Hermione and Ron’s children? If in five years time, J.K. Rowling suddenly comes out with Albus Potter and the Return of Voldemort, you saw it here first. What do you think, Sarah?

    BTW, re: Game of Thrones (one of my absolute fave shows), my husband tried to read it, but said that he felt like he needed a white board to keep track of all the characters. I’m sticking with the television series. This season alone, they introduce 19 NEW characters. I realize that might not be a lot if your last name is Duggar, but as an only child, it’s a heck of a lot for me to keep straight.

    • My Best Friend’s Wedding is a good example of a not-so-perfect ending that worked out wonderfully. I see what you mean about rom-coms, but even then, the good ones have a happy ending (love prevails) but the characters still have some things to work out.

      And yes, I was just thinking about the Harry Potter epilogue. I think JKR knew that most of her readers would want that final closure, knowing their weren’t going to be any more Harry books. But yes, I think it does leave the door open for a spinoff novel or series with the kids. Not sure Rowling will go that route, but she could. But yeah, I do kind of wish that part was left off.

      My husband said the same thing about G o T – he’s reading and watching, and he said that season 2 is introducing characters too quickly. He totally understands why I’m confused week to week — hard to keep track of all those families and grudges!

  5. Great post, Sarah. You nailed it when you put the questions to writers if they are tying up too many loose ends for their readers. I recently finished the book “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett. It was out of his usual genre, and incredibly, amazingly good. I would highly recommend it to anyone despite my one criticism, which is that he could’ve ended the book about 4 chapters before he did. And now I’m realizing why the ending was disappointing — he wrapped up every main character’s life in a little bow and gave it to you. There! Everyone who deserves to be happy is, and everyone who deserves misery is miserable. The End with a capital “E!”

    It’s another reason why I couldn’t stand either of the two Dan Brown books (“The DiVinci Code” and “Angels and Demons”) that I read. They both ended too neatly, I wasn’t left wondering what could’ve happened to them next.

    • Pillars of the Earth is on my shelf. That’s another adult book with small print I’ve been meaning to get to! Now I’ll have to check it out. Maybe I’ll stop 4 chapters from the end!

  6. I like a little bit of wiggle room to imagine my own ending, but not so much that I really have no clue what happens. For instance, if there’s a love triangle and the story ends with no hints, I’m going to hate it. i.e. – Josh waited outside the back door, while Aaron paced nervously in the lobby. There were only two exits, and Miranda knew that either one was a choice she could never take back. She liked them both, but only loved one. So she stood and walked toward her destiny. The End. – That’s just rude! But on the other hand, if you say, – Miranda stood and wound through the crowd to the lobby. Aaron’s face lit up when he saw her. “Does this mean you’ll run away with me?” Miranda smiled shyly. “Let’s start by getting some lunch.” – I’m happy with that. I don’t need or even really want to hear that Aaron and Miranda got married 6 months later and had 4 kids over the next 15 years, but at least let me know what choice she made. If I’ve invested time in following your character’s journey, I’m going to be very unhappy if it has no resolution.

  7. Laughing so hard at the revised book titles!!! I actually stopped reading the books after book three because he’s taking to damned long to finish it. Delayed gratification is so not me!

  8. OK the end of that episode was CRAZY!! I already thought that chick was insanse and than that ending-wow!

    I haven’t read the books, but my husband has so he helps me keep track of things that are going on. I want to read them, but they’re long and have tiny print and they make me miss my YA books. Someday I’ll read it! My husband often tells me though not to get attached to anyone in the series-Martin has no problems kiling people off. I like that it’s realistic and not all happy ending, but at the same time it’s very frustrating. Yet the story is so good and I love the characters-I can’t help it!

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