It is probable that humans remember unfinished/incomplete tasks better than completed tasks. I am wondering if there is a genre/style of literature which takes advantage of this to boost the memorability of stories by leaving none of the threads tied up. I know that there is no proper way to define "unfinished", especially if an author has decided that their work is 'finished', so to clarify a little further, I've drawn some diagrams (because everybody loves diagrams).

Generally I imagine that over the course of a novel various threads (goals, threats, characters) can make up the ark of the story.

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Often the threads are resolved by the climax and then there is some kind of denoument. Sometimes not every thread is resolved, for example in Norwegian Wood where

it is left ambiguous whether Toru and Midori get back together

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Sometimes threads are created and then lost/drift away/are never tied up, for example almost every plotline in A Series of Unfortunate Events.

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And then of course sometimes extra threads get resolved after the climax of a story, like the "there's just one thing I still don't understand..." type endings of a detective story.

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To be a 'Zeigarnik book' I would say that all of the plot-lines would be left unresolved, and the result is the appearance (or reality) of a book where the author got half way and then gave up.

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In this case there is no resolution of anything, rather than a cliff-hanger as such. I suppose another analogy could be watching a single episode of a soap opera, where there is no sense of the character stories terminating.

Is this a real genre or style of book that anybody is familiar with?

  • 1
    Is Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje, an example of what you're looking for? If it is, I'm not aware of any other books like it in this respect. And the two other books I have read by Ondaatje actually tie up many of the plot threads, if not all of them.
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 23, 2019 at 20:58
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    You may find The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to be what you are looking for. Mar 23, 2019 at 21:32
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    One minor quibble with your first diagram: the climax usually resolves the core tension, but the dénouement is where many of the remaining threads are untangled and resolved. In some cases the climax is the start of bringing the threads together. E.g. the antagonist is exposed and justice prevails, and the dénouement then tidies up all the unresolved questions - why; how; what happened to C; do D & E reconcile; does F flee in shame; etc. A flat-line dénouement sounds more like a flatline on a hospital monitor (i.e. the plot has died). ;-) Mar 24, 2019 at 23:48
  • @Chappo, yeah that's true. I suppose the 'default' diagram should really be the last one. I think I would still maintain that most storylines tend to be resolved during the main plotline, but it would probably just depend on one's definition of 'thread' or 'storyline' Mar 26, 2019 at 1:02
  • Two users have voted to close this question as off-topic for "asking for list of works or reading recommendations". I think it's poor form to VTC without posting a comment explaining why, but it's within the rules. I posted an answer that included a few examples, but I see nothing in the question itself that asks for a list of works or recommendations; instead, it's a question about whether there are specific genres or literary styles that might deliberately leave story threads unresolved. That seems like a fair question. I'm voting to leave it open. Mar 26, 2019 at 10:38

1 Answer 1


Regarding the Zeigarnik Effect itself, it's a bit of a leap from an unfinished task being more memorable, to thinking that unresolved threads in a novel make the novel more memorable. In any case, there are criticisms of the effect itself. Wikipedia says:

The reliability of the effect has been a matter of some controversy.

Several later studies, performed later in other countries, attempting to replicate Zeigarnik's experiment, failed to find any significant differences in recall between "finished" and "unfinished" (interrupted) tasks (e.g. Van Bergen, 1968).

Ignoring the question of the effect itself, are there many memorable works of fiction with unresolved threads? Gareth Rees suggests The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne, might fit the bill. Peter Shor suggests Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje.

I think any work that sets out to examine the human condition without offering a clear conclusion would qualify – "here's life, it doesn't make sense, no tidy endings" kind of stuff. Hugh Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn comes to mind. Maybe some existentialist or absurdist novels – e.g. Kafka's The Trial. Some of the more experimental or boundary-pushing modernist works: certainly Samuel Beckett's The Unnameable, and perhaps William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and James Joyce's Ulysses, amongst others.

But compared to the wealth of great literary works to choose from, the above is a pretty slim list. I think the difficulty in finding examples suggests one of three things:

  1. Not many such works get written. They're challenging to write successfully, and not very enticing: fiction writers are generally storytellers who certainly want to take you on a journey but also derive pleasure from delivering you to the destination, rather than leaving you stranded at sea (or in space, or in the desert, or in a dungeon, or just meaninglessly dead).
  2. Editors and publishers are conscious that good stories, with a dénouement where everything gets resolved (ideally with at least a satisfying if not happy ending) tend to be safe and popular, so there's an automatic filter to be overcome just to get the work published.
  3. The supposed Zeigarnik Effect is about whether something is more memorable, not whether it's more satisfying, likeable or worth recommending. How many have read The Da Vinci Code compared to The Unnameable? The latter is utterly memorable, but I wouldn't recommend it to most readers. If the Zeigarnik Effect exists in literature, it's probably also self-limiting.

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