Friday, July 29, 2016

Ambiguities Abound (and Can Astound)

By Art Taylor

Back in 2012, Janet Hutchings asked me to help inaugurate "Something Is Going to Happen," the blog for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. My post was the third for the blog, the first guest post actually (first post not penned by Janet herself), and as soon as she asked me to contribute, I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about: endings that purposefully, strategically perch themselves on the edge of something else that is going to happen—somewhere in the blank space beyond the final lines of the story. You can find that post here.

This week's question here at Criminal Minds—"How do you feel about ambiguous endings?"—inevitably overlaps with my topic at the EQMM blog, and in fact several of the stories and novels I talked about there could be termed ambiguous endings while others might not. For example, David Dean's magnificent story "Ibrahim's Eyes" (June 2007; listen to the podcast here) stops just short of the final actions of the story—the fallout from a poignant, breathtaking decision—but there's little doubt about what will follow, even if we readers don't see it firsthand, in scene. In contrast, Stanley Ellin's "The Moment of Decision" also ends at that moment of decision but even a few moments sooner in this case—with the decision itself unclear and the reader left to imagine both the choice made and the potential fallouts in all cases. (I've taught this story several times in my classes at Mason, and it always provokes interesting discussion: critical reading of the story and the characters to sort out what exactly is happening in the final scene, to argue about the choice that should be made, to imagine the various outcomes of several possibilities.) 

The former here, Dean's story, is not an ambiguous ending; the latter, very deliberately, is—but I'd argue that each story is ultimately not only exciting but also fulfilling. (And not to get too teacherly about it, but I'd also argue that the withheld ending to "Moment of Decision" doesn't matter to the narrative arc of the story, which is fully completed by the final sentence.) 

Several of Ellin's stories revel in ambiguous endings; he's truly the master of them, and two of his stories—"The Moment of Decision" and "Unreasonable Doubt"—are included in Otto Penzler's great anthology Uncertain Endings: The World's Greatest Unsolved Mystery Stories.  That second story also purposefully and with wicked glee cheats readers (and a listener!) out of the ending to a story, and another of Ellin's stories, "The House Party," ends with a twist that seems to clarify what's happening, even as it pushes readers deeper into other questions, about whether (for example) the main character is in hell or in a mental institution or.... This is another I've taught often, and students really get a kick out of tracking down evidence for several different ways to understand the story. 

As other of my Criminal Mind compadres have pointed out this week, there's a difference between an ambiguous ending that seems to enrich a reader's enjoyment and engagement with a story and one that leaves a reader dissatisfied or frustrated.

From my all-too-brief descriptions of the Ellin stories above, it's clear that I find them enjoyable and engaging, but I should also point out that there are always students who disagree with that assessment, even after we've finished our discussions on how the stories work, their strategies, their endgames (that latter word meant in a couple of senses). Inevitably someone will feel cheated, angry even, and nothing can change their minds about those feelings and assessments. 

Part of this may surely reside in reader expectations and values, attitudes toward genre, and really the specifics of subgenre. Several of the posts this week have talked about the desire to have the criminal discovered and justice served—no ambiguity on either count—and readers of the traditional mystery expect that sense of resolution and satisfaction—even, I might argue, that happy ending, not just the crime solved but the troubles resolved and order restored. Ambiguity in those types of stories can be frustrating. And even in works where true order doesn't fully triumph (justice can be thwarted in so many ways, and societal injustices always persist beyond the solution of individual crimes), there's still some sense of resolution, with the reader at least knowing the truth of the matter.

Ambiguous endings, meanwhile, may work best in different kinds of stories—noir tales, for example, or more general suspense—where reader expectations are different, where the sense of being thrilled and unsettled may ultimately outweigh the need to have equilibrium restored.

One book that has always proved controversial here, especially in terms of genre expectations and provocative endings, is Tana French's In the Woods. In many ways, French's first novel is a police procedural, and in that genre, we anticipate that the police will find the criminal and shepherd him or her into the justice system, whether or not that system ultimately carries through with proper prosecution of the crimes in question. This does happen at the end of the novel: a young girl is killed, an investigation ensues, and the truth does come to light, though the aftermath of those revelations prove complex.

However, the book also has another mystery—with one of the police detectives revisiting his own childhood, the disappearance (never solved) of two of his friends, and his own brief disappearance at the same time, memories of which he's never been able to access. While the novel's primary mystery is solved, the detective's engagement with and understanding of his own story becomes more complicated, and many readers have expressed frustration and even anger with an ending that seems to cheat them of satisfaction. (I emphasize that word seems because it can be argued that the story is complete, just as it stands.) 

In the Woods was a very popular book, so I'm certain that others would (and maybe will) weigh in here with their thoughts on it. While I would argue steadfastly in defense of the novel's ending (as I did in my review here at the Washington Post), my goal isn't to discount opposing views. On the contrary, I would use the validity of each side of the argument to a different purpose: The book's ability to leave people talking about it, passionate about their feelings, speaks to its success on a different level and speaks directly to the power of the ambiguous ending when used purposefully and strategically. Circling back to the Ellin stories I've taught in class, those discussions may well prove the weight and substance of the stories—their ability to spark readers to think, to explore, to argue.

I think any of us might feel lucky to have readers engaged with our writing on those many levels. 


In other news, a quick mention of some events ahead for early August—which seems a particularly busy one for me, not only on the road but on the screen as well! 

Next week, I'll be reading with my wife, Tara Laskowski, in Chicago as part of the Wit Rabbit Reading Series, co-curated by a good friend from our MFA days at George Mason University. The reading is Tuesday, August 2, at Quencher's Saloon, 2401 N. Western Avenue, at 7 p.m. The Facebook page for the event is here

Later that week, North Carolina Bookwatch on UNC-TV airs an episode where I talk with host D.G. Martin about On the Road with Del & Louise. Our interview premieres on Friday, August 5, at 8 p.m. on UNC-TV's affiliate stations, with encore performances on Sunday, August 7, at noon, and Thursday, August 11, at 5 p.m. See the North Carolina Bookwatch website for more information and for links to interviews with other fine N.C. authors. (A link to my episode online will be there after broadcast too.)

Then the following week, I'll be taking part in two events: a panel discussion on Thursday, August 11, with mystery writers Con Lehane, G.M. Malliet, and Collen Shogan at the Ellen Coolidge Burke Library in Alexandria, VA, and the all-day Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival on Saturday, August 13, along with a fine slate of writers; check out that website for the full list of participants and programs.

Hope to see people there—and at other events down the road as well!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

If it Works, it Works.

by Alan
How do you feel about ambiguous endings?

This question spawned a few questions of my own.

What is an ambiguous ending? Is it one where some loose ends are left dangling (and it’s clear they haven’t been resolved)? Or is it one where the ending is not clear (either the reader isn’t sure if the main conflict has been resolved, or isn’t clear how)? Am I splitting hairs here?

Of course, I’ve read books with both types of endings.

I have no problem with books that leave a thread (or several) hanging. Most of the time, as long as the main conflict has been resolved one way or the other (oh, who am I kidding? I want the good guys to prevail!), I’m happy. I can deal with a few things going unresolved. After all, real life is plenty messy.

Honestly, I also have no problem with books having an ambiguous ending, with one major caveat: THE ENDING HAS TO MAKE SENSE! If the ambiguity is due to a nonsensical plot twist, or a completely-out-of-character action, or a deus ex machina, then fuggedaboutit!

But in general, I don’t need to know exactly what happened. In fact, sometimes it’s more satisfying to me if I have to ponder several possible outcomes. (For some reason, I find ambiguous endings more “palatable” when they occur in short stories, than in novels. But I think that’s a question for another blog post.)

When I write a novel or story, I try to elicit a certain reaction from my readers after they’ve finished. I’m going for the “Of course, that’s what happened! (Or that’s who did it!) It’s the only solution that makes sense. And boy, I should have seen it coming!” If I can achieve that type of reaction, then I feel I’ve done my job (at least plot-wise).

That’s also the kind of reaction that satisfies me as a reader. And yes, I CAN be satisfied with an ambiguous ending, if I feel the story demands it.

The Taste_cover for websiteMost of the books I’ve written have neatly-wrapped endings. I like having good defeat evil. But in THE TASTE, I leave the reader wondering what will happen next. And really, it seemed like the only way I could end the story, given the chain of events and the characters.

What about you, readers? Where do you stand on ambiguous endings: love them or hate them?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

It's As Clear As Mud

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.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Does it leave you thirsting for more?

By R.J. Harlick

How do you feel about ambiguous endings?

An intriguing question that has the old brain cells churning. I will admit that at the end of a good book I do feel a sense of satisfaction when all the questions are answered and the loose bits and pieces are nicely tied up with no dangling threads. The Mountie gets his man, or woman as the case may be. The bad guy gets his just desserts. Love’s misunderstandings are finally righted and the couple walk off into the sunset. The ring is thrown into the fire, the evil forces are destroyed and peace is restored. You know the kind of endings I mean.

However, and there is always a however, I find the books that resonate the most with me are those that leave the odd hook dangling, have an ending that isn’t obvious or a story that left some promises unfulfilled and others changed. I find these books will leave me thinking about them days, if not months after I closed the final page.  What did the author mean by that? Why did he or she do that instead of this? Sometimes, an ending might leave me shaking my head and asking what really happened?

But for an ambiguous ending to be successful it has to ultimately make sense to the reader, otherwise I would say that it is merely a case of bad writing. A good, well-crafted ambiguous ending on the other hand requires much skill by an author who is a very good story teller and knows their craft thoroughly.

While we are on the topic, we might as well mention bad endings, because it can be a fine line between ambiguous and outright bad. I’m talking about those endings that seem to come out of left field with little or no foreshadowing or those where the author has reached their maximum wordcount and lumps forty years worth of stuff into the last chapter. There are also those endings that you as the reader simply don’t like or agree with no matter how well written they are.

Unfortunately for this reader, moi-meme, it can turn me off the writer. When I am dissatisfied with an ending, I rarely try another book by that author.  A good ending, ambiguous or otherwise, will have me thirsting for more.

I will admit I like to play around with the endings of my own books, leave a few hooks dangling, take it where the reader least expects it to go or add a surprise twist. It’s part of the fun of storytelling.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Was that really the end?

How do you feel about ambiguous endings?

by Meredith Cole

It depends.

Endings are tough, but important. They need to feel satisfying and right to the reader so they don't go searching for the next few pages, wondering if the printer screwed up somewhere. And sometimes their ambiguity can inspire lots of discussion about what people think happened after the end. So I can't say that I mind an ambiguous ending.

Most crime novels have endings that neatly tie up all the bows in the story and take you to a place where there is truth and justice and crime always pays. Some of them don't end quite so cleanly, and are statements about how life is not always neat or just, and there isn't a moment in time where we can declare that this is the end. But I occasionally find that problematic as a reader.

Donna Leon is one of those interesting crime writers who often has ambiguous endings. Her sleuth figures out who did the crime (the mafia, etc.) but in the end there is nothing the police can do to bring the perpetrator to justice. The books end in frustration and despair about the corruption of Italy. Although I love her books (who wouldn't want to spend the afternoon in Venice?), I made the mistake of reading too many all in a row. I started to feel as despairing as the Italians and had to take a break.

As a writer, heading to the end can be both scary and exhilarating. I have yet to serve up an open ended ambiguous ending in one of my book, but perhaps I will be inspired to do so one day. And hope that the reader goes along for the ride and finds it as satisfying as a neat bow.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Sic transit gloria mundi

Which would you choose? Fame or fortune?

by Paul D. Marks

How 'bout we go 50-50 on this one.

Seems a lot of people want to be famous these days…but not for doing much worthy of fame: Paris Hilton, a whole family tree of Kardashians, the bling ring. I address this issue to some degree in my novella Vortex and Broken Windows, the upcoming sequel to White Heat. But before I get to them:

Sure I want to be famous. And I want to be rich. But I’d like to be those things for doing something worthwhile…and that can be entertaining people. Because as John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) learned in Preston Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels” that’s what people really want.

I keep telling my wife that I’m semi-semi famous, though my goal is to be semi-famous. The truth is I’m probably more like semi-semi-semi to the 10th degree famous. But the goal is still to be semi-famous. I don’t think I could ever be as famous as the Real Housewives of Here, There and Everywhere for doing nothing or even less than zero to paraphrase a great novel, or Snooki for tanning and Mike the Situation for adoring his own body. But if I can take people away from their world and their worries for a few hours, I’m good. Even if it’s into a much darker world of noir and mystery, at least it’s away from their day to day problems.

As for being rich, I’d settle for a house on each coast (that includes the West Coast, the East Coast, the Gulf Coast and the Amalfi Coast), a private plane, a yacht, a decommissioned missile silo for a very private writer’s retreat. And an endless supply of pizza and M&Ms – peanut only and no blue ones – they’re unnatural looking, how much blue food is there? – and hey, if Van Halen can do it, so can I.

Other than that I don’t really have much to say on whether I’d rather be rich or famous. It would be nice to be both. But I do have some thoughts on our fame-obsessed culture and address these issues in my writing.

In Vortex, a noir thriller, Zach Tanner is an Afghan war vet. Before and during the war he and his buddies have big plans to get rich and famous quick. Maybe by not quite doing the right thing. Being wounded in the war has given Zach time to think about it and he has a change of heart. Here’s a couple excerpts from Vortex:

It sounds corny, but I did want to be somebody. Didn’t really care how I got there either and maybe that was my problem. Maybe I should have cared. Back then I didn’t really care about much, fucked around and just wanted to be famous—rich and famous. And I thought if I could get my hands on some money that could help me on the road to fame.

Fuck, everybody I knew wanted to be famous. Everybody but those wanna-bes like George who were actually studying and heading somewhere. Some people have a road paved with gold. Others have a dirt-road, lined with ruts and potholes and IEDs, and they’re lucky if they can reach the next milestone before getting waxed. I had every advantage a person could hope for, but I couldn’t have gotten into UCLA or USC if my life depended on it. I was just lazy, especially when it came to studying. Nah, I wanted a faster road and a furious rod.

And from another part of Vortex:

Jess was still where I was before I deployed, still wanting the bling, but I’d moved on. Being a soldier, being in a war and being wounded changed me. She was just where I’d left her. Still wanting the brass ring but not wanting to do much to get it. The problem is, no matter how much you have, it’s never enough.

In Broken Windows, Duke, the P.I. from White Heat, who solved a case and got his “fifteen” minutes
of fame doing so, says:

Ever since my seven minutes of fame with Teddie Matson’s case, I had every two bit producer who needed the goods on his wife or girlfriend or boyfriend, or all three, or had to know what the competition at the other studios were up to, wanting me to work for them. I had no end of cases to work. A lot of Hollywood riff-raff; the fact that they might be worth a hundred million dollars didn’t make them any less riff or raff. I was making good money for a change. And I hated every minute of it.

So many people in our society want to be famous these days. They don’t realize they’re making a bargain with the Devil when they ask for that. When they do realize it it’s too late. But most famous people aren’t famous for doing anything important. I didn’t want to be one of them. And fame is a double-edged sword. Sometimes it opens doors, but you also can’t be anonymous. Some people ask for it—movie stars, then resent the price that goes with it. I hadn’t asked for it. But maybe it was part of my penance.

I think there’s a recurring theme going on here, so that hits on how I feel about fame and fortune.

I’ve met many famous people in one capacity or another. Some were nice, some not so nice. Fame doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a good person or happy or even prosperous. And when I think of fame I’m reminded of this line, paraphrased from the Jose Ferrer version of “Moulin Rouge”:

One should never meet a person whose work one admires. What they do is always so much better than what they are.

I hope if I ever do get beyond semi-semi-semi to the 10th degree famous that I will still be humble and share my M&Ms with the little people who helped me get where I am. (It’s a joke – okay, you people who take things too seriously.)

To me, fame without purpose is pointless and fortune without respect for others is meaningless.


Click here to: Subscribe to my Newsletter

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Secret option C.

by Catriona.

"Would you rather have fame or fortune?"

I'm assuming that "as a writer" is understood, and that changes everything.

For one thing, the most famous writer in the world isn't all that famous anyway. J.K. Rowling can still sit typing in the cafĂ© in Edinburgh undisturbed. Really. I've seen her there. Of course, she does it with some kind of magical facial expression. If she could bottle and sell that "don't even think about it" look she'd be a rich wo- Oh.

And even if a famous writer gets recognised and mobbed by fans, they're book fans. They're readers. They're not natural mobbers. I'm trying to imagine a crowd of readers screaming and fainting and snatching the clothes off the back of . . . Stephen King. But I'm failing.

I got a bit flummoxed when I first met Mary Higgins Clark, but all that happened was I stepped back in case she thought I was standing too close and I tripped over the tripod stand that the "Mary Higgins Clark" poster was propped up on. It made a clatter but no security was involved.

So, all in all, I think extreme fame for a writer isn't enough actual fame to spawn a monster. I'm going to Harrogate today and I'll be seeing Simon Brett, who has just been awarded an OBE and a diamond dagger and is having a special reception thrown for him. If he expects me to curtsy and/or is now travelling with a personal grape-peeler, I'll edit this blog to reflect it.

How about fortune?

We hear a lot about people whose lives are ruined by lottery wins but, again, I think it's different for writers. I don't know anyone who does it for the money and I don't know anyone who would stop doing it if they suddenly had a wet ton of money. And money wouldn't really help with any bit of the core of what being a writer is. It wouldn't bring ideas, or a publishing deal, or a sympathetic editor, or readers, or good reviews, or an extension on the next hand-in date.

Of course, a huge steaming heap of filthy lucre would bring some incidentals: a hired publicist, a PA, freedom from a day-job, research trips with leg-room on the plane and a posh hotel room . . . but those things don't bring ideas or readers either.

So I'm going for secret option C. I'd rather have writing. If that's guaranteed I'll take the lie-flat plane seat and PA, please. (But I want to keep going to the Post Office myself because I like the people who work there and I'd miss them.) And then if I had to accept being so famous that klutzy fellow authors backed into tripods, I'd cope with that too,

"Show me the money...." by Cathy Ace

Fame or fortune – which would you choose?

I agree with Susan and Rachel that this conditional question allows me to choose only one of the two options on offer, and, assuming “fortune” means pots and pots of dosh (money, lolly, lucre, cash, spondoola, bread, dough, bucks), I would unequivocally choose fortune over fame.

Not short of a bob or two, but her fame caused challenges
Fame is capricious and depends on others; fortune can be managed, overseen, curated.

Fame means nothing except maybe annoyance to those who share your life; fortune can be shared with those about whom you care.

Fame becomes a burden; fortune can offer freedom.

Fame feeds the ego; fortune can feed the soul.

Fame cannot be kept from those you meet; fortune can be private, so you’ll be more likely to be able to have “real” human relationships based upon “real” responses to you as a person, rather than as some sort of icon.

For those who gain fame, for whatever reason, often the opportunity to amass a fortune follows, so you might think I’d prefer fame so that I'd, ultimately, have more of a chance of access to a fortune. But that’s not a choice on offer here.  In any case, honestly, I’d rather be a completely unknown millionaire, able to live the life I choose without a worry about money for myself or those I love, than have to constantly pander to the fame-granters whose criteria for allowing me to be “famous” would shift in any case. I should add, in case you're wondering, that I'm not afraid to work hard to amass my fortune in any field where fame doesn't have to be a part of the achievement system involved - for example, so long as there's no photo on the jacket, a book that garners millions of dollars doesn't have to make one famous, as let's go with that as an option, eh?

Not a retirement plan, but a dream!

Or, yes, let me win the lottery, anonymously, and I’ll be as happy as Larry (assuming Larry had anonymously won the lottery).  

Cathy Ace writes the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries (book #2 THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER will be available in trade paperback on August 31st in the UK, and in November in the US/Canada, and the Cait Morgan Mysteries (book #7 THE CORPSE WITH THE GARNET FACE was published in paperback in April). Find out more about Cathy and her work, and sign up for her newsletter at