We’ve all read those kinds of books where the ending is left pretty open. Sometimes it’s satisfying, sometimes it’s not. Once in a while it’s okay to leave the ending up to the reader and they can infer on what might happen next. Other times, though, it just doesn’t make any sense.
You know how sometimes you have 20 pages left in a book and you’re either saying to yourself, “How can this all get wrapped up in 20 pages?” or, “It’s over… what else can be said in these 20 pages?”
I’m pretty sure you want your readers asking themselves the former, but are you able to do that with a mystery where a crime has taken place?
Let the crime go unsolved
In real life, there are plenty of crimes out there that have gone unsolved. It’s the sad truth. In some cases, the bad guy is crafty enough to get away and other times there’s just not enough evidence to convict someone.
This is totally okay to do in your mystery books, but maybe just once in a while. You don’t want your readers picking up your latest book and saying, “Well, I know there’s going to be no clear answer, so what’s the point?”
But here are some points:
1. Allow your readers to solve it themselves
Each and every day someone out there is discovering something new about the Harry Potter series. Give your readers a chance to do that with your mystery. Book clubs will get together and someone will say, “I think this happened because…” and someone else will counter with, “Yeah, but this guy had this motive…” and so on and so forth. You can leave enough evidence to point the blame at a character or two but not give a clear answer. It will certainly give people something to talk about when the book is over.
2. Give them the right answer but don’t convict anyone
There’s nothing more frustrating than knowing the answer and not being able to do anything about it. You don’t want to frustrate your readers, no, but you want them to feel something, right? Frustration for the detective who solved the crime but can’t do anything about it. Sadness for the victim’s family because they’re so close to justice but can’t get it. Annoyance at the bad guy who’s laughing as he crosses over the border.
3. Don’t give an answer at all
I wouldn’t recommend this in case your readers decide to form a mob against you, but you could just not give an answer at all. Don’t even hint at an answer. The crime could be so messed up that the detective goes insane himself. There might be too many red herrings that no one knows up from down and before they know it, the trail runs cold. This would still allow your readers to try to figure things out, but unlike my first point, they won’t have much concrete clues to go on.
So, is it possible to end a mystery without a solution? Absolutely. Should you do it all the time? Probably not.
But hey, writers not only enjoy torturing their characters, we like to tease our readers a bit too.