Short Fiction, Satisfying Endings and Reader Expectations

by James Scott Bell

This month a writer named James Patterson (who has had some lg-bookshots-cross-killsuccess and may break out soon) began a new enterprise. It’s called BookShots. These are to be what he calls “short novels” and what everyone else calls “novellas.”

Patterson, the former advertising man, is nothing if not strategic, even visionary. He is always looking for ways to expand his product line and this plan is brilliantly counterintuitive –– find new places for physical books. 

According to a story in the New York Times, Patterson “wants to sell books to people who have abandoned reading for television, video games, movies and social media.” He wants to write fiction that is “shorter, cheaper, more plot-driven and more widely available” than full-length books. But here’s the part that really intrigues me:

[E]ventually, Mr. Patterson and his publisher want to colonize retail chains that don’t normally sell books, like drugstores, grocery stores and other outlets. They envision having BookShots next to magazines in grocery store checkout lanes, or dangling from clip strips like a bag of gummy bears.

“Those venues are very inhospitable to traditional publishing, but we think this is a type of book that could work very well there,” said Michael Pietsch, the chief executive of Hachette Book Group, which publishes Mr. Patterson’s books in the United States through its Little, Brown imprint. “He has enough recognition that his name can make it work.”

In some ways, Mr. Patterson’s effort is a throwback to the dime novels and pulp fiction magazines that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, when commercial fiction was widely available in drugstores.

It’s an ambitious plan, and I doubt any writer except Patterson, backed by mega-publisher Hachette, could pull this off. Maybe Stephen King if he also branded his name as Patterson does. For that is part of the strategy as well:

Hachette is betting that Mr. Patterson is famous enough to overcome … obstacles. The company is planning to publish 21 BookShots in 2016, including thrillers, science fiction, mysteries and romances. The first two, out in June, are “Cross Kill,” a book by Mr. Patterson starring his popular recurring character Alex Cross, and “Zoo II,” a science-fiction thriller written by Mr. Patterson and Max DiLallo. All the books will be written or partially written by Mr. Patterson, except the romances, which will be labeled “James Patterson Presents.”

All well and good. This is a business, after all, and no one has been a more astute businessman than James Patterson. He provides a product. That product entertains. There is an exchange of money for perceived value. And everyone’s happy.

Well, almost everyone. I hopped over to Amazon to have a look at the first BookShot, Cross Kill. Some of the reviewers have a complaint: the ending is incomplete. As one reviewer put it: The story is good, typical Patterson but it ends with a huge cliffhanger and that is what I do not like. … I had expected a short book, like a short story and I liked the idea but now I must say I am disappointed. It would be good if it could be explained where in the Cross Universe these Bookshots fit.

Had the book been advertised as the first part of a serial, all would be well. That’s what Stephen King did back when he and his publisher released The Green Mile. It was done in six installments, and that’s how it was advertised. So readers knew when they purchased one of the short books there would be another to come.

So what does all this mean?

It’s a great new era for short fiction. Short stories (up to 7k words or so); novelettes (7k – 20k); novellas (20k – 50k); and short novels (50k – 70k). You can use these to hone your skills, establish a digital footprint, and make new readers. I’ve been pleased that my series of novelettes about a vigilante nun, Force of Habit, which I did purely for fun, has generated its own little fan base. That’s the pulp fiction idea, and I love that it’s available to us now via direct digital publishing.

But write your stories to completion! No matter the form, the ending has to satisfy the reader. They expect an ending, unless in your marketing you are absolutely clear that you are writing a serial.

I remember years ago when my wife was reading a thriller and kept telling me how good it was. I would say, “But what about mine, honey?” And she’d say, “Shh, I’m reading.”

Anyway, she got to the end and … there was no ending! She was at first confused, then ticked off. I had a look at the book. It was a bit shorter than a “big” novel. And it indeed left off right in the middle of a crucial moment.

Only later did I learn that the publisher had decided to take a “really big” thriller and divide it in two. Their thinking was, “Hey! This is a good novel, and we can double our money by making it two books! The readers will be panting for the rest!”

Only they did not pant. They punted.. They did not want to be “tricked” again. The second book went nowhere.

So don’t treat your short fiction as a throwaway. Over the last few years most of the A-list writers, at the behest of their publishers, have dashed off short ebooks to augment their series or help sell an upcoming release. In several instances these have been less than stellar efforts, garnering a spate of 1-star reviews from fans. Maybe the A-list can get away with it, but the rest of us can’t. We need, more than anything, to establish “trustability.”

So, kids, write the best short fiction you can, every time out. And that means –– unless it’s a serial and the readers know it –– that you give them a satisfying ending.

Have you ever been burned by a story you thought was going to end, but didn’t? Or ended in such a fashion that it ruined all the good stuff up to that point?

And what do you think of this new pulp fiction idea? Do you think there’s a market for it?


Speaking of thinking strategically, if you’d like to pick up a book on how a writer can do that very thing, here it is..

30 thoughts on “Short Fiction, Satisfying Endings and Reader Expectations

  1. Interesting. When you first started describing Bookshots, I definitely would NOT have figured them for books that do not have their own satisfactory endings. I would have been miffed to pick one up and get that result.

    I think the idea of having short work as accessible as a bag of chips in checkout quite intriguing. I never cease to be amazed that anyone cares about what the Kardashians are doing so it’ll be interesting to see if that kind of placement occurs and how it does.

    And the short work trend seems to be spreading to non-fic too. Over the past week or so I was watching a series of online interviews with mostly non-fic writers and I was amazed to hear them talking about trends of writing works averaging no more than around 12000 words or so. Not what I’m used to. Not yet sure what to make of it. I’ve only just recently downloaded a couple of non-fic books on the low end range of the word count—I’m not sure I’m sold on the small sound byte writing.

    In any case, the experiments are all quite interesting.

  2. I thought Book Shots sounded like Amazon Kindle Worlds novellas which were inspired by fanfiction. If they’re serialized with cliff hanger endings, I can see how readers would hate finding this out AFTER they bought one.

    As a reader who has been burned by short short novellas (6000 wires or less), I now pay attention to word count or page number. I don’t buy teasers or “samples” or novellas that are too short.

    My Amazon KW books are 25,000-31,000 words and are priced by Amazon at $1.99. The short stories are a challenge to write, to make sure they are satisfying for readers. The shorter format has taught me a great deal on how to pack the shorter storyline with full characterizations, mystery, police procedure, action etc – and the reviews have been good. Readers seem to appreciate the value as well as the quick satsfying read.

    • And that is the key, Jordan – satisfying. Any form can do that. Also, any form can fail to do it.

      Short stories are the biggest challenge, IMO. But when they work, they can have just as much of a punch as a novel.

      • What has surprised me most is that “punch.” I’ve had to condense & ramp up the emotion to provide what I hope is a satisfying read in a shorter format. When I write longer novel length projects, it will be interesting what I will carry with me from this learning experience. Thanks for the thought provoking post, Jim.

  3. A couple of decades ago, some publisher started a line of very short books. They reminded of the little story treasure (or some name like that) books we used to get when we were children.
    As I recall, they were under–way under, perhaps–1,000 words

    The marketing idea was the same as Patterson’s/Hatchette’s (you thought I was going to say “Patterson-Gimlin,” didn’t you?)
    Anyway, they books were available at grocery store check outs, the magazine and book racks, and so forth.

    The publisher invited us to write them. The stories were somewhat like short stories rather than novels, but they were marketed a short novels, as I recall.

    After I read the first three or four, I was not very satisfied. I can’t think of a place you would read one, unless you were riding the commuter bus or train home, or had bought a handful at the airport book store. (Or the obvious: a commode fodder.)

    As a lot of us figured, the book line didn’t last more than a few months, if it was that long.

    Perhaps the idea of the short novel might work under the hand of Mr. Patterson with the bucks of Hatchette, to give it time to find the reader base and the Patterson name.

    But I’m thinking that endingless books will not be popular. They wouldn’t be with me. I’m not really certain that short novels with no endings such as Patterson-Hatchette envision, will allow a reader time to like or fall in love with the character enough to take a chance to buy the next little book.

    Still, Patterson has pulled off some remarkable things, hasn’t he?

    Just a thought: perhaps that is why Mr. Patterson has written a short course on novel writing. (You could once find it prominent on Facebook.) It would be a way to train writers to turn out fiction of the size and style he wants.

    • It will be interesting to watch this, Jim. There is a lot of money and marketing muscle here. But the market itself will be the final arbiter, as it should be.

      I hope it works. I’d love to see shorter, modestly priced books in drugstores and checkout lines.

  4. My book Aztec Midnight is a novella, and I’m working on a second. If you want to be read, you have to follow the market, and shorter works are more appealing to a market with a shorter attention span.

    Plus, the discipline of writing short fiction teaches economy of language, a valuable skill all writers want to sharpen.

  5. Great post, Jim. Thanks for the information.

    I think this “new pulp fiction” idea is good. Anything to get people’s noses into reading – physical or e-readers. Attention spans are shorter, and social media is a huge addiction. When I see people playing the “pacifier games” on their cell phones, I ask why they’re not reading a book. They act like they’ve been caught out behind the house doing something that has them hooked. Let’s hook them on books.

    This marketing approach needs to focus on young people. Get them started reading for life. Where are the retail venues and online sites they frequent? Make the purchase of short-form fiction quick and easy – physical books or e-books.

    Like Jordan mentioned, writing short fiction can teach the writer. It can also give us a break, some variety, an opportunity to experiment with a different style, voice, approach. And this could be analyzed to see what readers like best.

    And finally, writers (or publishers) could work together – form cooperatives – to create size and clout to make inroads into the various retail establishments. I can see it now, the TKZ vending machines, sitting outside the gas stations, ready to sell readers their next fix of fiction 24/7.

    Thanks for turning on our creative juices this morning.

    I just finished Romeo’s Way. Loved it.

  6. Leaving things hang at the end is such a rookie mistake. In fact, I wrote about it on the Indie Catholic Authors blog a couple of years ago, in response to a self-published novel I had downloaded to my Kindle for free. (That post is here:

    On the other hand, I think having a big gun like Patterson start producing short, inexpensive works sold in supermarket checkout lines is a great idea. Whether he wants to make them serials (with readers fully informed that that’s what they’re getting) or novellas, either way there’s a good chance of reaching people who otherwise might not be reading, something like the “light novels” that are becoming popular in Japan to get younger readers to graduate from manga comic books. The world needs more readers — not just because so many people are writing and publishing these days, but because reading strengthens and enlightens the mind, and the world these days could use a lot more of that!

    • Good post. L.A. You nailed it back then. And it still holds.

      And I, too, hope that Mr. Patterson and Hachette accomplish their goal of getting people off TV and into reading.

  7. I still can’t get my brain wrapped around the line that Patterson intends to produce books that are “more plot driven.”

    But anyway…

    I really hate books that leave me hanging…which, to my mind, is not the same as a well-earned ambiguous ending. This line from your post jumped out at me: “Write your stories to completion! No matter the form, the ending has to satisfy the reader.”

    One of our folks (Joe?) had a really good post recently about the technique of writing your ending first and working back from there. Which is good advice, because even if you change your mind, having at least a vague destination is a pretty good idea. Your observation made me remember the TV series “Lost” from a few years back. It was utterly enthralling when it first started — all the best set-ups and tensions and suspense of a good old-fashioned serial. I couldn’t wait to tune in next week. But then it got really dumb, then dumber, then devolved into sheer nonsense. And THEN we got the Bobby Ewing in the shower ending — they were never really dead!

    Same thing happened on a less sinful scale with one of my other favorite serials “Twin Peaks.”

    That’s all. I am out of material. Have a great Sunday, all!

    • Kris, LOST is a great example. I kept warning all my friends who were hooked that it couldn’t possibly end well. The cliffhangers for each episode were rather easy to do … if you never have to have them make sense!

      OTOH, Breaking Bad and Mad Men managed stellar endings.

    • PJ,

      RE: ” But then it got really dumb, then dumber, then devolved into sheer nonsense.”

      Is Lost by chance a show that’s on CBS? This sounds like exactly how Hawaii Five-0 devolved (and that’s putting it nicely) on CBS. So much so that I threw up my hands and walked away.

  8. I’ve noticed while browsing Amazon that some shorter works have “cliffhanger ending” in the book description. That’s playing fair with the reader. Nothing is more frustrating than getting to ‘the end’ to find it’s not the end at all. But Patterson fans buy anything with his name on it, so it might work. I hope not.

    • I didn’t mean to imply I’m against shorter works. It would be nice to see a print market for them. I didn’t bother putting my novella into print because of the cost. I’m anti-cliffhanger.

    • Right, terry, it has to be made clear to the readers. Of course, sometimes the readers are at fault for not reading the whole description.

      Perhaps the titles should have Part 1, etc. That would be the most up front way to do it. But I also know that pro marketers think that might depress sales. So they risk reader ire.

      I don’t like reader ire.

  9. I’m taking an epic fantasy I could never sell as a long work, and breaking it up into short novelettes. It will be clear it’s a serial, but I’m reworking each novelette to be a self-contained story – like you would any part of a novel series. I am always reading novels on my phone and reading these epics (like Outlander) on a phone is a tough go. I would love to have shorter works to read on my phone as I wait for kids doing sports or dental appointment, waiting in line, etc. We’ll see. Just saw you’re coming to Toronto next May. Super excited about that. Can’t wait!!

    • Can’t wait either, Lisa.

      The best series, IMO, have a satisfying ending for the book at hand, while still leaving open plot possibilities in the future. Not easy to do, but worth striving for.

  10. I read Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer and the ending infuriated me. Still does every time I think about it. Worst part? He never did write that sequel. And now he never will.

    You raised several interesting points in this post. I’d like to address only one so as not to hijack the thread. I had a person leave a review once saying a novel of mine didn’t resolve the storyline at the end, and I think that hurt me for other potential readers. What the reviewer neglected to clarify was that the novel resolved the storyline for the NOVEL but not the SERIES (much like the Harry Potter saga). Big distinction.

    I think these shorts can be a great way to get people reading. But not at the expense of a proper ending. Or at least transparency about the endings.

    • Staci, I’m amazed that anyone actually made it through Harlot’s Ghost. I gave it a try, but found it rather … turgid.

      And you are absolutely right about the series that manages to wrap up a book but keep the overall threads going. Harry Potter is a perfect example. But we also know there are just some readers you can’t please.

      • Turgid. That made me laugh.

        It was, but once I start something, I usually stick it out. (I think I have OCD about books.) Wish I didn’t on that one.

  11. Patterson must be out of pies to stick his fingers into … so now he’s going to MAKE a pie.

    Books without endings infuriate me, especially if there’s no second book sitting there. Or if the second installment is four bucks. Sorry, not paying four bucks for 6k words. Thankfully indies have taken to posting serial warnings all over their descriptions.

    I like endings. I put them on all my stories, because I hate cliffhangers as much as the next reader.

  12. I think Mr. Patterson is brilliant. The only time some people seem to have to read is while commuting. Those short books are perfect for that. Also, short story writers can expand at the very least a thousand words or so and they’ve produced a novelette. The machines I’ve heard about that print up books can easily print up novelettes for very little money. What’s lost in single book sales can be made up for in quantity. Other writers will follow and a new boom will begin. Of course, there’ll always be a market for longer books. —- Suzanne

  13. Thank you for writing about this! I find I prefer novellas or novelettes over short stories to both read and write because the longer tale helps me care about the character(s) more. (I have stuggled to find the print market, so I’ve decided to re-publish one of my longer shorts via kindle.) Your posts and books on the subject have been a great encouragement. Thank you!

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