Picture books without a twist at the end aren’t as much fun as those with a surprise ending that moves the story beyond the book.
The so-called “open ending” that is gradually gaining more and more acceptance — first in young adult novels and then also in books for younger children — should be views as a modification of the linear code (in which a character goes on a journey, changes, then returns home).
– Maria Nikolajeva
For examples of contemporary picture books with open endings, see This Is Not My Hat and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.
The great challenge of picturebooks — which is also true of other stories but less so — is the need to create a story which stands up to not only being read twice, but 100 times. Much of the re-readability of a picturebook comes from its conclusion.
THE IDEOLOGY OF ENDINGS FOR YOUNG CHILDREN
How a narrative resolves, ‘ties up’ or ‘untangles’ (both metaphors are widespread), the complications of story is a recurrent concern among theorists, but is of special interest with children’s fiction. Here, the desire for closure, both in the specific sense of an achieved satisfying ending and in the more general sense of a final order and coherent significance, is characteristically a desire for fixed meanings, and is apparent in the socializing, didactic purposes of much children’s literature. There is an idea that young children require (that is both ‘demand’ and ‘need’) certainties about life rather than indeterminacies or uncertainties or unfixed boundaries. Even a genre such as fantasy, which might be expected to offer a site for a play of meanings and for resistances to fixed meanings, usually shows a strong impulse towards closure. … As readers we learn to look for some sense of completeness, both aesthetic and thematic, over and above the bringing of a series of events to a close. Aesthetic completeness is achieved in children’s literature through representation of symmetries, or movements from states of lack to states of plenitude.
– Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephens
THE CONCEPT OF THE NEVER-ENDING STORY
John Truby, in his book Anatomy of Story, writes about endings with a focus on film, but what he says about creating a ‘Never-Ending Story’ is particularly true for picturebooks.
You don’t create a never-ending story just by making it so good it’s unforgettable. The never-ending story happens only if you use special techniques embedded in the story structure.
He explains what he means by a ‘never-ending story’ by giving examples of stories which fail — stories which have limitations:
1. PREMATURE ENDINGS
This happens for three main reasons: early self-revelation, in which hero has a big insight, development stops, everything else is anti-climactic. Or the hero achieves his desire too quickly. Giving him a new desire doesn’t fix the problem, by the way, because then you’ve started a new story. Third, if your hero acts in an unbelievable way this can cause a premature ending because you’ve taken your reader out of the story.
2. ARBITARY ENDINGS
The story just stops. The reader will feel like the writer just got sick of writing, or reached the required 32 pages and had to quit.
3. CLOSED ENDINGS
This is the most common kind of false ending, and I suggest it’s the most common ending of popular picturebooks. ‘The hero accomplishes his goal, gains a simple self-revelation, and exists in a new equilibrium where everything is calm.’ Think of all those going to bed stories, which serve a purpose for young children. Or, if not bed, the child returns to the home after an adventure.
The thing is, ‘desire never stops. Equilibrium is temporary. The self-revelation is never simple, and it cannot guarantee he hero a satisfying life from that day forward. Since a great story is always a living thing, its ending is no more final and certain than any other part of the story.’
John Truby then offers tips on:
How to Create a Never-ending Story
You can ‘create an apparent equilibrium and then immediately shatter it with one more surprise. This reversal causes the audience to rethink all the characters and actions that have led them to this point…The audience mentally races back to the beginning of the story and reshuffles the same cards in a new combination.’ The movie example is Sixth Sense. We won’t be watching that the same the second time.
In other words, there’s a surprise ending. I make use of this technique in Hilda Bewildered. The limitation of this kind of plotting is that it is the most limited way of creating the never-ending story. ‘It gives you only one more cycle with the audience. The plot was not what they first thought. But now they know. There will be no more surprises.’ This is more a ‘twice-told tale’ than a never-ending story.
Truby recommends weaving a complex story tapestry using character, plot, theme, symbol, scene and dialogue. The permutations can seem infinite.
Tips to create an infinite story tapestry:
1. Hero fails to achieve her desire. Other characters come up with a new desire at the end of the story. This prevents the story from closing down and shows the audience that desire, even when it’s foolish or hopeless, never dies. I make use of this technique in Midnight Feast.
2. Give a surprising character change to an opponent or a minor character. This technique can lead the audience to see the story again with that person as the true hero.
3. Place a tremendous number of details in the background of the story world that on later viewings move to the foreground. Picturebooks lend themselves brilliantly to this technique, because detail and clues can be hidden in the illustrations, revealing themselves only after the story has been read. For an excellent example of this see Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner.
4. Add elements of texture–in character, moral argument, symbol, plot, and story world–that become much more interesting once the audience has seen the plot surprises and the hero’s character change.
5. Create a relationship between the storyteller and the other characters that is fundamentally different once the viewer has seen the plot for the first time. Using an unreliable storyteller is one, but only one, way of doing this.
6. Make the moral argument ambiguous, or don’t show what the hero decides to do when he is confronted with his final moral choice. As soon as you move beyond the simple good versus evil moral argument, you force the audience to reevaluate the hero, the opponents, and all the minor characters to figure out what makes right action. By withholding the final choice, you force the audience to question the hero’s actions again and explore that choice in their own lives. Jon Klassen’s hat books are excellent examples of this type of storytelling.