As a new writer, and even now to a certain degree, I struggle with finding the right way to end a story. Regardless of whether the book is meant as a stand-alone or as a part of a series, writers are admonished by Quoters of the Rules to make doubly certain that any and all problems started in the book are resolved in the book.
In an effort to be teachable and learn my craft, I tried combining 2 novels into one. You see, book # 1 started 5 problems but only fully solved 2. The Rules wanted me to solve all 5. “If you show a gun in Act I, it has to go off by the end of Act 5” or so The Great Wisdom of Writing goes (or at least a quote from Anton Chekhov says something to that effect). Unfortunately, the result was a mess, and the publisher told me to split it back up into a 2-parter. We’re both much happier with the results.
So then clearly, the Hugos and Nebulas – being examples of excellence in the speculative fiction arena – had neatly tied strings for all their endings, right?
Well… no, I really can’t say that. Even the ones that were not part of a series often had untidy endings with major issues left unsolved. A few of them just … sort of … ended, like, ran out of words. There was no real sense of resolution, and I wondered if some sneak had snitched the last chapter or something. The major, overriding issue may have been settled, but other, lesser character and plot arcs were still hanging around like untied shoelaces waiting to trip up the unwary reader.
This is something of an extension of the quirk noted in Part 4. If plot takes aback seat to the description of the new culture, then resolving plot and character arcs becomes highly optional. Having the main character solve the main problem is also optional. In some of these tales, the good guy sort of stumbles into the solution, the secondary characters provide the main character with the necessary solution, or the problem self-corrects in an almost Deus ex Machina sort of way.
What does this observation show us? Like many things, the real truth is somewhere between the extremes. I find completely unresolved endings unsatisfying no matter how snazzy the culture is. Still, sometimes – particularly in a series – tying up all the loose endings causes the story to drag. So, since you, writer, control the ending, write the ending that best fits the tale. If the story is plot-focused, make sure your ending solves the main plot problem. Alternatively, if your is mostly about character development, resolve the character arcs. The plot problem becomes inconsequential.
Personally, though, I would prefer to see plots and characters settled. If everything is mapped out correctly, lesser problems are solved well before the end. … Unless the arc in question spans a series and binds that series together. That’s a different phenomenon altogether.