This post is inspired by the article Should You Tie Up All Ends When You Type ‘The End’? over at the fabulous blog Nail Your Novel, written by author and ghostwriter Roz Morris.
I’ve been wanting to write something about ambiguous endings for months now, ever since I got into The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, which features authors reading aloud short stories written by other writers. Roz Morris’s post reminded me how much I was itching to share my thoughts on this issue.
Ambiguous Story Endings
Many of the short stories featured in The New Yorker end somewhat ambiguously in terms of what will happen to the characters, what decisions they will make, or even what has already occurred in the story.
As writer Melissa Palladino puts it in this transcript of an interview from The Writing Show:
[An ambiguous ending] leaves the reader wanting. Well, in some cases, it leaves the reader really irritated, because it’s “What happened?” The New Yorker is a classic example of a publication—it might be changing—but they seem to like ambiguous endings, and many people say they publish the type of stories where you turn the page to see what happens next, but there’s no more. That’s the end. I think people can get vexed if the ending is too open.
I was confused by the first story I ever listened to from the short story podcast; I almost wondered if I just wasn’t ‘getting’ the point, or if I had missed some key information, because I had no idea what happened. But, after the story, the fiction editor discussed with the reader certain points of the story, during which they both gave their opinions on what happened in the story, and what pivotal choices the characters would make.
I was a little relieved to find that I hadn’t missed anything, but that the author was deliberately ambiguous about aspects of plot and character. This pattern did continue in many of the other podcasts I listened to.
The purpose? To make readers think. To force readers to make up their own minds about the outcome of a story.
Sometimes this works to the story’s advantage. Other times it just frustrates people.
Powerful, or Just Plain Frustrating?
It may seem a little mean-spirited on the part of the author to toy with his reader’s mind and emotions, but I think it actually speaks to how involved we really do get in characters’ lives and their individual stories.
For example, I loved the book “Crow Lake” by Mary Lawson, and passed it along to my dad to read last time he came for a visit. I remember him being so engrossed in the story that he started talking about the characters as if they were real people, and the story as if it were something that had happened in his own family.
“Dad,” I said,”you do realize that the book is fiction, right?”
He replied, “I know, but—man-–we Canadians sure know how to write a good book!”
In some ways, I feel that an author allowing us to make up our own minds about the ending of their story is almost an honour. It’s as if we get to play a bigger part in the characters’ lives than if everything was set out nicely before us.
But, I do have to admit that some untidy endings are annoying. This usually happens when I get the impression that the ending is ambiguous because:
- the author has no idea how to bring about a resolution, OR
- the author is deliberately trying to tease the reader
On the other hand, I don’t like coming to the end of a story and having absolutely no idea what happened.
What’s the most powerful and/or frustrating ambiguous story ending you’ve ever encountered? Do you tend to write stories with tidy resolutions, or those that force readers to think for themselves?
Join the discussion
Emily Carter says
I agree, I don’t like being hit over the head with an ending, but I also like to feel that there is some kind of resolution that I can work out, even if it’s different from what someone else might get out of it. I write short stories and I find endings difficult (doesn’t everyone), but I think I’d find it even more difficult to write an ambiguous ending because if I didn’t have a sense of the point of what I was writing then it would be impossible to write, and if you do have a sense of the point, then it should come across to the reader too.
I also write and read kids and YA stuff and I remember reading the entire Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snickett, which, after 13 whole books leaves you with an ambiguous ending! This is pretty unheard of in children’s literature anyway, but after 13 books…! I was ready to kill someone. And I got that the point of it was that life is like that etc etc, and that was something that ran through the books and which I enjoyed about them because it was very different. But by book 13 I wanted an ending and I was annoyed I didn’t get one.
So yeah, I think sometimes ambiguous endings are done to look clever, especially by short story writers, and it does annoy me.
Debra Eve | Later Bloomer says
I think it really depends on the genre. Just last night my husband and I watched “The Italian Job” (the original with Michael Caine) which ends in a cliffhanger. Because it was a comedy/caper film, I appreciated the tongue-in-cheek finale.
I hate when mysteries and thrillers have ambiguous endings. I feels like not playing fair. Tana French’s In The Woods is gorgeously written with two equally compelling mysteries. The answer to one becomes obvious halfway through, but the other remains a puzzle. She never resolves the second, more interesting story. I felt cheated.
Cleverness for the sake of cleverness is definitely annoying!
Melanie Garlick says
When I was a child of around 11 or 12, I remember a particular teacher telling us a story one day during what should have been a history lesson. It was a story about a small boy who was waiting for a parcel to arrive on his birthday. My teacher (back in the late 70s) used to smoke a pipe and during lessons he would often clean his pipe and pack it with tobacco before popping it back in his top pocket ready to smoke during break. He was a small man, almost gnome like, with a white beard and trousers that were too long for his legs. He spoke very softly with a Scottish accent. He told the story in great detail as he paced up and down the aisles where we sat at individual desks, cleaning his pipe as he spoke. He timed the story to end just as the bell for lunch rang out. The story was a build up to a parcel arriving. He gave a lengthy description of the child, the rooms in his house, the sight of the postman coming down the road as he looked through the window, eventually leading to the boy receiving the parcel and undoing the string and peeling back the paper. Yes, as you’ve probably guessed, it ended just there. We never got to know what was inside the parcel. The bell rang and nobody moved. We all watched the teacher as he popped his pipe in his to pocket, picked up his briefcase and leave the room. Some of us caught up with the teacher in the playground and asked him what was in the parcel “It doesn’t matter”, he replied “did you enjoy the story?”
Frederick Fuller says
My opinion of “Gone With the Wind” is not complimentary because I think it does not paint an accurate picture of the South at that time. Having said that, the ending, I think, is brilliant. What happens in the lives of Rhett and Scarlett is anyone’s guess, and that’s what makes it delicious for me. And, I hated the sequels because they attempted to answer the question that only I can answer for myself. It’s one of the most fascinating endings to a story I’ve ever read.
Ambiguous endings are wonderful if they are left alone.
Ashley Prince says
I love ambiguous endings, honestly. I love to think and spend days thinking about different endings and the different paths that the characters could have taken.
And when it comes to movies, I love it even more. Inception? Oh. My. Gosh. Just to make myself feel better, I tell myself it was all real.
I may not have finished my novel yet but I know how it ends. The initial issues of all the plots will be resolved but then I’m going to leave a spanner in the works that makes the main character question his future actions. Should he leave everything as it is…? Technically he has achieved what he set out to do… Or, should he continue to pursue the issue? There’s a whole other aspect that has just been uncovered.
Ironically, that teaser is quite ambiguous — I wanted it that way. 🙂
Joe Bunting says
First, I love the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. The stories come alive so much more when they’re read aloud and then discussed.
And so yes, I’m a fan of the ambiguous ending. Life is ambiguous, why should literature be different. Still, it’s fun to have a nicely tied up plot every once in a while. It’s like eating Halloween candy.
Rose Byrd says
I have always preferred to think of these types of endings as “open-ended”, rather than ambiguous. Why? The non-specific ending always allows me to plug in what I have already concluded about the characters and the plot, which is more definite, I assure you! I agree with the point of view that these non-specific endings empower the reader. I welcome the mental challenge. See, real life is just exactly this way, is it not? That is why I have learned over the decades to celebrate the unexpected, the non-specific, the amazing possibilities with which life gifts me!
Kate Walker says
I read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ a while back for research for an English Lit essay, and the ending frustrated me so much I can’t even begin to describe it. While I like certain things to be ambiguous at the end of a book, such as relationships and the like, the whole ending was completely open. I think it was a real shame because I had really enjoyed the book but that end just ruined it for me.
I couldn’t personally do that to a reader; there’s something about investing hours into following a story only to never be given a conclusion that seems really cruel to me.
Thanks for all of your thought-provoking comments, everyone! Nice to see a variety of opinions on ambiguous endings.