Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Ambiguous Ending

By Julie

Can you tolerate an ambiguous ending? I think I can, as a rule. I watched a movie last week that had a pretty ambiguous ending, but it had enough context clues I could at least make some inferences about why the end needed to be ambiguous and what would or could potentially happen after the credits rolled.

credit: brett jordan's Flickr photostream
In fact, now that I think about it, I'm not sure the end was ambiguous at all. I think maybe it was just drawn that way, with the screenwriter/director giving enough information during the course of the film that the viewer really knew exactly what was going to happen.

At any rate, though I was somewhat perplexed by this ending, it was not enough to make me angry with the filmmaker or make me feel I'd wasted my time watching the movie only to get no satisfaction. In fact, I felt deeply satisfied by this ending in spite of, or maybe even because of the ambiguity. So much so, I thought about it for days and keep thinking about it now and then. I picture the ending images and where I think they led -- but how they could have led somewhere completely different. I think of the metaphors involved in the setting and the last bit of action and how those things tied to earlier scenes.

I think. And therefore, I am ok with it! (I like to think. If you don't, perhaps this post is completely lost on you.)

As a writer, this is something to chew on. If you write an ambiguous ending, are you attempting true "slice-of-life" fiction, where the reader is truly not meant to know (or maybe even care) what will happen after--the only intention is for the reader to take some meaning from what occurred during the time period in which the story was set. If so, you might want to be sure you're not setting the reader up for complete frustration when they come to the end. If they are left with the sense of What the bleep just happened?! and feel cheated by the lack of a clear ending, you might have a problem. It might mean you didn't deliver anything else meaningful in your slice.

Perhaps a good way to envision this working well is to imagine yourself watching something interesting develop while you're riding a train or sitting in a cafe. You observe a certain person or set of people interacting and making decisions for a short period of time. You don't know what happens to them after you leave the cafe or after you get off the train, but you still feel as if you observed a meaningful moment, even if you don't completely understand the before and after of it.

On the other hand, are you trying to write something that instructs the reader to bring her own thoughts and experiences and opinions to the table, that allows the reader to apply her own ending or at least the next step? In that case, it seems you would be wise to insert plenty of clues that could lead to various satisfying endings -- and by satisfying, I don't mean happy, necessarily. I mean simply that you've supplied your reader with enough information to make a few reasonable assumptions about what happens after the story ends and not leave them feeling like the film broke five minutes before the movie ended. Because we all know how much we hate that.

What about you? Do you like ambiguous endings, or do you want things thoroughly concluded and finished off with a bow? What are some of your favorite novels or films with ambiguous endings?

The movie I watched, by the way, is Take This Waltz, with Michelle Williams, Seth Rogin, Sarah Silverman, and Luke Kirby. Here's the trailer.


  1. I loved this post, Julie, because I've never really considered writing one myself and yet it doesn't bother me to read an ambiguous ending or watch one, either. In fact, not long ago I read a book only to be disappointed that there was another chapter. To me the better ending happened in the next-to-the-last one. I like the idea of trusting the reader to decide for himself or herself how the story plays out--often well done in short stories, I think.

  2. Yep, sometimes I think a book goes on too long when the page I read would have been the perfect place to stop! Something to remember as we write.


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