When I was an undergraduate earning a creative writing degree, we were challenged in a literature class to define what made literary fiction... literary. A classmate's hand shot into the air. “Sad endings” he said to the amusement of the class. And followed was a rousing debate about the definition of literary fiction. I don’t remember the end conclusion. Perhaps that is one of those unanswerable questions.
Although that question or similar was probably proposed in many classes during my educational career, I remember this class in particular. It was a comic book and graphic novel literature class. So, all in all, a pretty cool class. We learned about the history of comic books and graphic novels and read examples of different genres, from superheroes to manga to memoir to informational, but also some literary graphic novel fiction.
These literary graphic novels didn’t have sad endings. They had ambiguous endings.
There is a lot said about sad endings and happy endings, but ambiguous endings? My question -- to you and to myself -- is: Are ambiguous endings a cop out?
Are they cheap? Are they ineffective? Is the author not being bold enough to make a decisive decision about what they are saying with their work?
Now, I do not believe there are any ‘always true’ rules in creative writing, or the arts in general. For every rule, there are always exceptions. So, there are stories were an ambiguous ending work. But just as happy ending and sad endings have to be “earned” and fit the tone, theme, or genre of their work, so do ambiguous endings.
For example, consider the Christopher Nolen’s movie Inception (Spoilers to follow) in which the characters go into dreams to steal thoughts and plant ideas. At the end, our protag played by Leo DiCaprio spins a top to test whether he is in a dream or in reality. The camera focuses on the top and then cut to the credits before a definite ending can be sure. Would the top start to wobble and then fall over, thus proving he is in reality where physics apply, or would it keep spinning, a la dream logic. Audience debates, each ending interesting, and it works, this ambiguity, but the entire move thematically centered around dreams versus reality, and whether dreams could be a valid replacement for reality. Thus, “earned”.
But most of the time, I feel that ‘ambiguous endings’ are cop outs. Maybe it was the highly visual medium of graphic novels, ending with wordless images, that made the endings of those particular stories more up to interpretation.
I prefer endings that say something, even if they only hint towards the future of the character learning their lesson, or not, of being in a better place or in a worse place. An ending says something. It is the act of closure. Of course, there is room for ambiguity in stories and in endings. Not every answer needs a decisive answer, but when you read a story, you are going on a journey with the author and the character. In most, some sort of change takes place, even if it is merely a change in perspective. Endings punctuate the story. They give enlightenment to the story as a whole. The reader does not need to know everything by the end, but they need to know something.
This leads me to another rambling thought: perhaps a dissatisfying, unearned ambiguous ending is indicative of a problem of the story as whole. Perhaps the story as a whole did not get it’s point, or theme,or message, or character journey, across well enough for the ending to have its impact. Maybe a refined story would have had a different ending, or perhaps the refined story would have carried the same ending to new heights because the foundation was stronger.
How do you all feel about ambiguous ending? An endings from books, movies, or TV shows that piss you off, or left you befuddled? Please share in the comments.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies