Ambiguous Endings

The Wife had me sealing the windows with plastic this evening, and as I set about the monotonous task of sticking, stretching, fastening, blow drying, and repeating, I got to thinking about ambiguous endings to books.

It’s not an easy thing to pull off effectively. In fact, they seem very subjective: either a given reader’s going to get it or he’s not. I like to think an ambiguous ending should come down to a binary decision, and the reader chooses Option A or Option B. It could be as simple as a light or a dark ending, a life or a death. Or the reader’s disposition could make their choice for them. Is his glass half empty or half full?

Yet ambiguous endings don’t always play out as simple as that. I can think of the endings of two books in particular: Brian Keene’s The Rising and Anthony Neil Smith’s Hogdoggin’. In both cases, the true action of the finales happen off-camera. Sure, there are plenty of clues pointing the reader in the right direction, but the outcomes are open to interpretation.

In The Rising, I thought Brian’s intention was pretty clear, and I liked the ending. However, he’s caught more grief for that ending from readers than for just about everything else he’s written combined. Some claimed to have thrown the book across the room, and others have been so vocal about their displeasure that Brian’s even lost confidence in it himself.

Hogdoggin’ played out in a similar manner, but in that case I was a little more disappointed. It’s not that I felt like I didn’t know what happened, it’s more like after all I that happened in both Hogdoggin’ and its predecessor, Yellow Medicine, I felt cheated. I wanted to see what happened to those characters.

In other words, I felt like those readers of The Rising. It’s not so much they didn’t get it, they just felt ripped off.

We can go back and forth about the writer’s obligations to the readers, but when it all boils down to it, it’s their subjective judgment that matters. Especially when they’re the ones plunking down their hard-earned cash for the products of our keyboard pounding.

Unfortunately, I think we’re further betrayed by our own medium. It’s all too easy to see the stack of pages on the right side of the book are getting slimmer and slimmer, and in both The Rising and Hogdoggin’ I remember the line of thinking went something like this:

Only twenty pages to go? Wow, he’s going to have a tough time wrapping this up.

Ten pages left. Wow. This is going to be sudden.

Five pages? What the hell? Can he pull this off?

That’s it? Damn it.

The “Damn it,” of course, could go either way: a wow or a disappointment. The point is, in both cases I saw the ending drawing closer and closer, and knew things were getting tight for the characters and plot. I saw the possibility of an ambiguous ending coming, and I started forming my own opinion of that possibility well before I got there. Not really fair to either the writer or the reader, is it?

Kudos to both Keene and Smith for having the sack to try it. No matter how the writer handles an ambiguous ending, there will be at least a few readers who just don’t get it or just don’t like it.

As for ambiguous endings in my own writing, I think I’ll sit that dance out. I don’t need that kind of grief right now.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

5 comments

  1. N says:

    My editor wanted more of an ending, too, so I added the bit about Rome listening to it all. So I had it even *more* ambiguous before…

  2. Mike says:

    Still ballsy to stop there, man. The biggest issue for me was not getting to see what happened with Rome’s wife. Have you caught a lot of flack for it or have readers generally been cool with it?

    • N says:

      Generally cool. No problems with reviews or readers. Of course, I had originally hoped to do a trilogy. That would’ve answered the lingering question and probably set up another ambiguous ending I would *never* answer. Maybe it’s just Lafitte who brings out that side of me.

  3. jim herbert says:

    Ambiguous endings, when executed deftly, can add resonance to the story, even allow the narrative to seem to continue after the last page is turned. When handled ineptly you have the same level of disappointment as when reaching the conclusion of Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS.