By Tracy Kiely
I would say that there is some ambiguity governing the rules of ambiguous endings in popular fiction, but to do so would open myself up to my being booted from this site. So, I will not say that. Instead, I will say that sometimes ambiguous endings are a good idea and sometimes they aren’t. Kind of like blind dates, spandex, and an all-you-can-eat-buffet. If done with some skill, research, and luck it can be a good thing. If not, it’s a train wreck.
I’ve found that ambiguity works best if you really care about the characters. You might find yourself wondering how they ended up in the same way you might wonder how an old college friend fared. No one really wants to find themselves pondering the fate of a jackass; always wondering if they finally got what’s coming to them. For instance, at the end of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett finally realizes that Rhett is her true love, only to have Rhett leave her. He walks out on their marriage. Scarlett is momentarily devastated, but soon picks herself back up and vows to win Rhett back. By this point, the reader has seen Scarlett pull herself out of just about every possible calamity; war, famine, poverty, social condemnation, and (gasp) nothing pretty to wear. She always triumphs. And although she can be a real bitch, we’ve come to admire her spirit. As a reader, we suspect she’ll win Rhett back, but we don’t know for sure. As an ending, it works because it pulls you back to thinking of the characters. If you’re like me, you’ll end up reading the book again because you enjoy the characters’ company, if you will.
Other times, ambiguous ending can just be annoying. When I first read Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in college, I remember getting to the end and wondering if Demetrius really loved Helena or if it was due to Puck’s magic. For those of you who need a quick refresher on the plot, Hermia is engaged to Demetrius, but is in love with Lysander. Helena is in love with Demetrius, but Demetrius is in love with Hermia. The four end up in the forest (because why not), and there they come to the attention of the fairy, Puck. Puck sees that Helena is love with Demetrius and tries to help her because again, why not. (I’ve found that a lot of what goes on in Shakespeare’s comedies can be explained with “because why not?”) However, Puck mistakenly puts the spell on Lysander, and he falls in love with Helena. More spells are cast and there is more confusion, until finally Puck gets his spells right: Demetrius is made to love Helena and Lysander’s spell is lifted thus restoring his love for Hermia.
Anyway, the ending bugged me. I wanted to know if Demetrius’s love for Helena was real or was the result of Puck’s spell. So, I asked. I will never forget my teacher’s response. She stared at me for a beat as if I were an insect and then said, “That’s not the point, Tracy.” And maybe it wasn’t the point. But I still wondered.
Obviously, for a mystery novel there shouldn’t be any ambiguity as to who the killer is. Readers get very grumpy if you string them along for a few hundred pages and then don’t deliver the goods. However, if you are writing a series, you can leave some questions unanswered, especially if those questions are answered in future novels. Perhaps you are telling the story for the killer’s point-of-view; maybe at the end you leave it unanswered as to whether he will kill again. Maybe you leave it unanswered if he will be caught. If done right, it can be a great device. If not, be prepared to receive angry emails.
But, there will also be readers who will find ambiguity in endings that the author considers crystal clear. (Shakespeare no doubt would echo my teacher’s response to my query.) We all focus on different aspects of a story. What you as an author may think is a non-issue, could of the utmost importance to a reader.
So, have I answered the question? Um. No, not really. But given the topic, I think it’s appropriate.