What’s your opinion on ambiguous endings?

I, personally, get annoyed by ambiguous endings. I like my stories very clear cut — if I invest multiple hours of my time getting to know and care about characters, I want to know definitively what happens to them.

This has put me at odds with several of my friends, especially when we go see movies. For both Inception and Life of Pi, my friends walked out of the theater going “Wow! Amazing movie! I can’t believe that ending! What do you think really happened? Was it real? Was it a dream? Wow!” Apparently they really like to say “wow”. Anyway, then they turned to me and asked me how I liked it, and I had to truthfully respond “Meh”, because of my aforementioned fondness for clear cut endings. They then proceeded to sacrifice me to Enigmaticus, the god of ambiguous endings, but I may or may not have actually died because the ending to this story is left deliberately vague and you’ll never know if it was real or made up!

See how annoying it is? GAH.

Anyhoo, all that being said, I’ve recently been plotting out my NaNoWriMo book, and when I got to the end, I realized that there were two ways the story could end. Two extremely different ways. Both are totally viable options, and both would leave some really cool ideas and questions in the reader’s mind. But I’m having trouble deciding which one to go with. So I thought “Screw the rules, maybe I should just cut the story off right before he makes the choice and let the reader decide what happens!”

Of course, I immediately felt very guilty about this thought, because, again, ambiguous endings = evil incarnate (at least in my mind). But the more I think about it, the more I like it. And the more I hate it.

So I guess I’ll pose it to you lovely people — ambiguous endings: good or bad?


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70 thoughts on “What’s your opinion on ambiguous endings?

  1. Oooh, tough call. I have gone with good because I love a bit of mystery, a bit of having to work things out. But… I am with you in the fact that I do get annoyed when I don’t 100% know what has happened. I guess I am on the fence but you didn’t put an ‘on the fence’ option in your poll! LOL. 🙂

    • Hahaha sorry. Considering the poll was about having trouble making up my mind, I probably should have included an option for people who couldn’t make up their mind. Sigh. And see, that’s the thing — from a writing perspective, I really like the idea of leaving it deliberately vague … but then I know that if I read an ending like the one I’m planning, I’d be furious. Decisions decisions …

  2. I have a lot to say on this subject, but it’s too early for me to think straight and besides, I need to go to work. So I’ll get back to you on this.

  3. I agree that ambiguous endings are usually “bad” – it feels like waffling. That said, I also used a somewhat ambiguous ending for the short story that I submitted to the Sword & Laser anthology (didn’t make it into the anthology, so I posted the story on my blog http://kaiherbertz.com/2013/08/16/16-sword-laser-anthology-submission/ ). I’m writing “somewhat”, because I know how things ended, but I’m not clueing in the reader.
    Also, I predict that your poll will yield ambiguous results, despite lacking an ambiguous poll option 😉

    • Ahh, you’re the second person to point out the lack of an “ambiguous” option in the poll! Opportunity wasted. I feel so foolish 😥

      Haha, anyway, back to the point. I think it’s slightly different with short stories, because it’s such a compact writing medium that you can afford to play around — and if people don’t like it, heck, it only took them five minutes to read. Whereas if you get someone hooked on a book and they expend multiple hours reading it, only to find an ambiguous ending at the finish line when they were looking forward to a resolution … ahh, it gets a bit trickier. Maybe I’ll write three different endings — one going one way, one the other, and the third an ambiguous conglomeration of the two — and let you guys vote on it 😀

  4. I’m not a fan of ambiguous endings either. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations ends that way. But at the same time, an ending like that can inspire your creativity — you can imagine a better future for those characters you’ve grown to care about.

    • That’s definitely true. In a recent book I read, I was furious that the author killed off my favorite character … but his death was ambiguous enough that I was able to imagine him surviving and living a long, happy life without directly contradicting anything the author wrote about him. So that was nice. But I mean for me, personally, I like to know definitively what happened, even if it’s not necessarily an ending I like. Once I’ve got the facts, I can then daydream about what could have been to my heart’s content. For example, in my heart, Fred Weasley doesn’t die, Sirius trolls around in the underworld for a bit, hangs out with James and Lily, and then walks right back out of the curtain, etc.

  5. I think it depends on how it’s done. An ending can have the ability to get people talking, but there should be some closure and clarity. My mind is going to a few animes on this one. For example, the ending for Evangelion is all levels of confusion and I still have no idea what happened. Meanwhile, the ending for Cowboy Bebop has a lot of closure, but there’s a touch of ambiguity on what happened to the main character. That touch can create fan conversations for years because it creates a hint of something more to come or causes people to revisit the series/book/movie again for clues.

    • Good point! I’ve never seen Evangelion, but I’ve heard all about its baffling ending from some of my friends. Interestingly, that’s one of the reasons I’ve been putting off watching it — I don’t like the idea that nothing will be resolved. Hmm … maybe that gives me my answer right there. Then again, I’m not reading my book — I’m writing it. And I’ll have to watch Cowboy Bebop so I can find out what you’re talking about 🙂 I keep meaning to watch it, but it never happens for some reason.

      • It’s a great series, but the ending makes it iffy for a lot of people. Things are resolved . . . sort of. Cowboy Bebop is a lot of fun and the ending definitely suits it.

  6. I guess what I’d do is start writing, and see what feels right at the end. It may be that an ambiguous ending fits in perfectly! perhaps it depends on how ambiguous the ending may be – if you can have differently levels of ambiguity…? Sometimes it can be fun for the reader to form their own opinion. In Inception for instance, I concluded that it wasn’t a dream, but only that the director intentionally wanted to leave you guessing at the end… That being said these sorts of endings can be annoyingly vague…. Good luck with which ever way your story turns!!

    • Thanks 🙂 That’s actually a really good idea — if I just leave it up in the air and write the story normally, maybe I’ll have a better idea of how I want it to end by the time I actually get around to writing the ending. I like it 🙂

  7. Sometimes ambiguous endings can be awesome, but generally, they’re pretty frustrating.

    I didn’t watch it, but didn’t The Sopranos this year have an ambiguous ending that pissed off a lot of fans?

    • I’ve never seen Sopranos either, but it’s supposed to be really dark and gritty, so I could totally see them pulling something like that.

      Yeah, ambiguous endings ARE frustrating. And I DO want to avoid pissing off my fans, because really, I need all the fans I can get 😀 Hmm …

  8. David Emprimo

    Yeesh. Two of my favorite movies are BRAZIL and SUCKER PUNCH, both of which have ambiguous endings. And one of my favorite books is Umberto Eco’s THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA, which also has an ambiguous ending.

    That said, I mostly like clear-cut endings, unless I know there’s a sequel coming. I got some negative feedback on my last book because of the ending. I know that I’m wrapping that up in the next book, but the readers didn’t, and I didn’t do a good job of conveying that..

    • Hmm, excellent point. Ambiguity is okay as long as there’s a sequel to explain it … but I don’t have a sequel planned for this book. Hmm …

  9. What about this ending? … “Well, personally, I kind of want to slay the dragon. Let’s go to work.” Ambiguous, but fitting.

    • I assume you’re referring to Angel? Lol. Yeah, but Joss Whedon had it end that way on purpose, because he was annoyed that the show was cancelled and wanted to stick it to the man by leaving it deliberately vague. Or at least, that’s what I like to believe 😀

  10. Ambiguous endings annoy me as well. With that said, there is a place for them and I think that exists based on what the story’s intention is. If it is something to make you think, ambiguous endings are great at starting that dialogue. Otherwise, I think stories should typically have a clear ending with all the strings neatly tied up (at least that is my preference).

    • Excellent points. One thing I’m now thinking of is (for the ending) to clearly lay out the character’s options, along with what might happen if he chooses either path. So that way, when he chooses one path, there’s always that thought of “what might have been”. And I’ve always enjoyed that sort of speculation, so that might work!

  11. For me it does depend on the story, but as a rule I’m not a huge fan. I like a distinct ending, good or bad. My NaNo novel could have ended like that too, it may still end like that depending on how I feel when I edit it.

    Sometimes they work, sometimes it’s a cop out.

  12. Hmmm… I think you need a Depends option in your poll. For me it depends on the story. In the case of Inception ambiguity makes sense since it was trying to be a dream etc etc. Other things it serves best to have a clear cut ending. Honestly though go with what you would like to read is my advice. 🙂

  13. I voted good, but it probably should have “depends”…it depends on the story.

  14. I’m going to have to go with everyone else who said that it depends. It really all depends on the story. Sometimes it’s a good thing, but sometimes it can be a bad thing. Most times I do like to know what happens. However, sometimes an ambiguous ending can be fun. It’s fun to discuss the book/movie with other people about what they think happened.

  15. I don’t like ambiguous endings. I want answers and a sense of finality or resolution. It’s like with poetry. Sometimes I can’t enjoy poetry because you often have to infer and scrutinize your own meaning when really I just want to be told what it means. If I’m reading a novel, I expect there to be a proper ending. If a writer spends his time planning and plotting a whole novel, he better spend equal time on the ending.

    I recently read a two-part book series and loved the concept and characters and the mystery of the plot. However at the end the characters literally said something along the lines of “We didn’t know what just happened, but we knew enough.” And “We weren’t sure what even happened here.” Seriously? I just spent two books for you to tell me what happened. Tie up those loose ends and give me an ending that makes sense. Not only did I not know everything I needed to about the mystery, but it wasn’t clear what was going to happen to the characters next either, and it was a book all about the characters escaping, surviving, and being okay. So no. Ambiguous endings ruin a good book.

    • I could not agree more! Thanks for putting that into words — it’s what I knew in my heart, but wasn’t quite sure how to say 🙂 The more I think about it, the more I agree with you — ambiguous endings are the worst!

  16. The more amphibious the better I say 🙂

    • Hehehe. You know, I don’t think I have any amphibious characters yet … well, no, there’s one guy who’s a shapeshifter, so he could hypothetically turn into a fish or a frog or something. Does that count?

      • This is turning into a good ending, I have no idea what is happening now . . .

      • I think there is room for both. It depends on the story and the audience being written for. There have been times when a hanging ending has troubled me. Like for example, the end to the film The Italian Job where having completed their heist, the gang are on a coach, which then swerves and is hanging on a ledge. The film ends there and it always left me uneasy, but I mentioned it to a friend who is an automobile enthusiast and he replied, ‘That’s the whole point, because Michael Caine then says, ‘hang on lads, I’ve got an idea”. I kinda ‘got’ it then 🙂

        • I think that as long as a hanging ending leaves enough clues that you can pretty much figure out what happens next, it’s all right. It’s when the ending is deliberately vague and it could really go one of several ways, that I get annoyed.

  17. Gwen Stephens

    Hi Michelle,
    I voted “no.” I’m with you – I not only like clear cut endings, I like clear cut everything! I get annoyed when an author’s style is too flowery or literary and the words get in the way of the story. I just like to follow along without having to think about it. For example, I started reading Ender’s Game aloud to my kids a couple months ago, and the vague writing style really got on my nerves. Even my 10-year-old kept commenting “I don’t get what’s going on!” so I was glad to know it wasn’t just me. Eventually we abandoned the book and went to see the movie.

    I guess the only exception I’d make to ambiguous endings is when the author sets up enough of a clear cut path that a reader could reasonably guess the outcome. Or if they’re setting up for a sequel. The Hunger Games comes to mind in both scenarios. Let us know what you end up doing!

    • Yay! Another ambiguity hater! Your comment about Ender’s Game actually surprised me, because I love that book … but now that I think about it, yeah, it really is super ambiguous at the start, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure I didn’t really know what was going on until at least fifty pages in. Obviously it’s easier now that I’ve actually read the whole thing through and understand what the heck they’re talking about 🙂

      I’m leaning more and more toward nixing the ambiguous ending plan. I thought it might be interesting to try from a writing standpoint, but … ahhh, I can’t help but feel I would be disappointed in myself if I didn’t give it a clear cut ending. Especially after publicly admitting that I hate ambiguous endings, lol.

      • Gwen Stephens

        Or you could try the ambiguous ending idea, let it sit for a while, and see how it reads when you go back for revisions! Not to throw more ambiguity your way…

  18. It depends on the movie or book, but I like both clear cut and ambiguous endings. A lot depends on the way that ambiguous ending…ends. I’ve disliked quite a few clear cut endings too.

    • I suppose it really does differ for every book, doesn’t it? I’m thinking the best bet might just be to write the book, and deal with the ending when I get to it 🙂

  19. I think it really depends on the story you’re writing.

    For instance, I wrote a (very) short story about punctuation marks and vowels. 😉 There was no hard ending because 1) it was a dream upon which I embellished, and 2) the point of the story was to highlight poor grammar, with a little humor thrown in for good measure. 🙂

    But I have another story about a kid who was saved from certain death by the kindness of a stranger. That one has a clear-cut ending. The kid is saved. Although, now that I think about it, what happens to him after that would still be conjecture.

    Hmm… in that case, EVERY story-ending is ambiguous! We never know what happens to characters after the story ends, even if the current crisis/plot/race/battle is over! Oh no, my mind is blown! :-O

    • Hahaha oh dear. You actually just made me think of a book series where the ending was TOO clear cut. Remember that little old series called Harry Potter? And that lengthy, super detailed epilogue explaining exactly what goes down with every single character, names all their children, establishes their jobs, their relationships, etc. etc.? I think the HP ending could have actually benefited from a little more ambiguity, because that ending really read like JKR was saying, “I’m going to head all you crazed fanfiction writers off at the pass and just tell you what happens to my beloved characters so you can’t go bonkers with your wild speculations.”

  20. I’ll be the contrarian here and state that I LOVE ambiguous endings. Many of my favorite works of fiction (non-sequels withstanding) all employ ambiguous endings. For me, they speak of a sense of uncertainty that’s evident throughout the work, and neatly tying things up for the sake of a satisfying conclusion just smacks of insincerity, or a cop-out at worst. I like it when an author or a filmmaker takes that kind of risk with an ambiguous ending, but there’s got to be enough of an incentive for the reader/viewer to let that ending sink in. Clearly, not all works of fiction allow an ambiguous ending, but for those that do, one can say that the creator of that work is going to let the reader or the viewer come to their own conclusions, rather than have one defined for themselves.

    • A very interesting opinion — and I especially like your comment on neatly tying up things being a cop-out, because in another comment on this post we were talking about how an ambiguous ending can also be a cop-out by the author. I think, like you said, it’s really best to judge it on a case by case basis — some books/movies benefit from ambiguity, and others just don’t!

  21. Both could be fun. I know, I’m a lot of help, aren’t I? For me, I like neat little packages. I like a true ending. But when movies or books like Life of Pi leave an ending that could go either way, I can’t help feeling like the author is brilliant to pull that off. You see, it’s hard to leave a reader hanging at the end, and also feel satisfied. I felt satisfied at the end of Life of Pi. I figure it probably ended one way, but enjoyed the permission I was given to believe the beautifuller (it’s a word) way. An author has to be able to master that fullness even when leaving details out. Otherwise you have a bunch of angry readers, and then the 1* comments start rolling in…. Does that help…..ish?

    • It does help … ish 🙂 I think I might just skip with a normal, non ambiguous ending … I don’t want to risk a horde of angry readers scaling the walls of my apartment building, breaking through my window with their grappling hooks, and carrying me off into the night. That would be bad.

  22. I voted yes but I think it depends on whether the book is the last in a series or not. For each book other than the last, a vague ending can act a little like a cliffhanger, leaving the reader wondering which way it could go in the follow-up book. A stand-alone book or the last in a series needs more care. Usually we like everything nicely tidied up ut there may still be a place for ambiguity. It’s leaves the reader thinking which is not a bad thing, in general. 🙂

    • You know, now that I think about it, I kind of left Imminent Danger on a bit of a cliff hanger. Good thing it’s in a series, lol. And I agree — books in a series can do the whole “Oh no! Plot twist! What’s going to happen next?” thing, but definitely not the last book in the series. Unless the author’s deliberately leaving it open in case they ever want to revisit the world 🙂

  23. I would say that there are several kinds of ambiguous endings.

    There is the “koan” ending, where the ambiguity is meant to enlighten (or at least to entertain) the audience. For example, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” had two endings–an unhappy one in the outer film, and a happy one in the inner film (the one that the characters in the outer film were making.) The audience was able to choose which one was the “real” story, and the process of making that choice forced the audience to confront their own preconceptions about the nature of reality. (This is why I am one of about six people who saw “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”.)

    There is the “puzzle” ending, where the work ends without revealing something that the audience is encouraged to figure out. John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, for example, ends with two characters, and it is not revealed if either or both are still human. There are enough clues buried in the film, though, that one can figure out what is going on. These kinds of works tend to engender a lot of on-line arguments, in a fun way.

    There is the “twist” ending, where instead of doing something unexpected, the writer doesn’t do something that is expected. Usually the ending is strongly implied, such as “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid”, where we “know” what is going to happen, we just don’t actually see it happen. Sometimes, though, things just stop before the resolution, such as Heinlein’s novel “Starship Troopers” that ends just before the beginning of a major battle. (Some people assume that this means that the protagonist dies in that battle, but that’s far from the only interpretation.)

    Sometimes the ambiguity is the whole point of the story, such as “Inception” or “Shutter Island” (which were actually the same film, Leonardo DiCaprio in a wet suit feeling angsty about his dead wife.) Sometimes the ambiguity is meant as a moral point, such as “The Salton Sea”, where we don’t see what happens to the protagonist in order to underscore the point that the protagonist no longer cares what happens to him.

    So I would say that ambiguity is a technique that is not good or bad in itself, it depends on how it is used and why,

    I do believe that the author should know those things that are being deliberately withheld from the audience, and have a good reason for withholding those things.

    As Douglas Adams observed, “We demand rigorously defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.”

    • Well, when you said you had a lot of thoughts on this subject … you weren’t kidding! Your literary knowledge continues to blow me away, good sir 🙂

      I freely admit that I tend to dislike overly complex narratives — when there’s a story inside a story inside a story, I have fun trying to figure it out for a few minutes, and then I just get bored. I’ve never been a huge fan of puzzles — I just don’t have the patience for it, I guess. It’s something I’m working on 🙂

      So I think I will avoid an ambiguous ending. If I did put one in, it would be of the “puzzle” variety … but considering that I don’t like puzzles all that much, I’m not sure I’d be able to do the puzzle justice. So clear cut and concise will be the order of the day, methinks 🙂

      Also, excellent Douglas Adams quote!

  24. I’m with you – I dislike ambiguity in endings! I thought of Life of Pi even before you mentioned it! Last night my husband and I watched (re-watched) the final episode of The Sopranos…talk about ambiguous. The first time I saw it I didn’t want to believe he was killed. But now I believe he was! They wanted that ambiguity, and it cracks me up that they have never said (to my knowledge) their definite feelings on the matter – whether Tony was shot or not. I guess it’s almost a power thing – the writer (or producers) have the power to manipulate us by using ambiguity. Annoying.

    • It can be very annoying, can’t it? I was so frustrated at the end of Life of Pi, because I love fantastical stories, and I hate when the option is presented that it might all be a delusion. Have you seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer? There’s one episode where Buffy wakes up in an insane asylum, and the entire episode is spent exploring the concept of “What if she’s not really a vampire slayer, and is just insane and is just delusional?” I know the writers were going for a fun “What if?” idea, but … I didn’t like it. It’s like when a story ends with the main character waking up from a dream. It feels like a cheat, you know?

  25. I don’t mind a bit of wondering now and then but I don’t like being left hanging without enough to go on to make my wondering productive. In some ways, it’s really all so subjective. In my debut novel, Disappearing in Plain Sight, I was pretty sure that the ending was as clear as newly shone up crystal sparkling in a display case. Not so. More than one reader asked me – but do they end up together? Age old question. Clarity is as much in the hand of the individual reader as it is in the pen of the author.

    • That’s very true. Reading a book is a unique experience for every reader, and even if you think you made something clear, they might have interpreted it a completely different way — like when you make an awesome joke, and it wooshes right over someone’s head 🙂

  26. Oooooh, good question! Dang. And while I sometimes occasionally like ambiguity in my movies (I, for instance, liked Inception, although yeah, that ending wakes me up at night wondering WHAT HAPPENED…,) but I’ve never really enjoyed it in my books.
    Go figure.
    If I wanted that sort of thing, I would read literary novels… And between you and me, I don’t. xD I read genre stuff because even though I know how it’ll go, AT LEAST I’LL KNOW WHAT HAPPENS AT THE END OF THE DAY.
    Although I will read pretty much whatever you write, I might shake my fist in your general direction a few times if at the end I’m not sure wtf just happened.
    (And I have to admit, sneaking that bit in about being sacrificed was HILARIOUS. You’re so funny.)
    But obviously can’t tell you how to end your own book, so.

    • Ooooh I get to do what I want? SCORE. Hehehe. Well, it’s nice to know you’ll read whatever drivel I produce, regardless of how ridiculous it is 🙂 And you’re right — ambiguous endings tend to belong to literary novels … and my books definitely aren’t what you’d call literary, lol.

  27. inkspeare

    I don’t mind ambiguous endings in movies because of the visual nature; I mean, the visual carries you throughout and up to that point, so I tend to be more forgiving (although I still want to know what happened 100%). However, I think that when I read a book, it is a totally different experience and different pace as well, so I like the story to end as clear as possible, but if there is a series of books coming up, then of course, it may work, and will make me want to know more/read the next book.

    • Excellent point about the movies — aside from being a visual experience, it’s also a fairly short one, which helps with the whole “being forgiving” thing. It’s the same as with short stories — it’s a shorter medium, so I don’t get as upset about a vague ending. But books … yeah, after all that time spent reading it, it’s nice to get closure 🙂

  28. I don’t mind the occasional open ending provided it fits in with the general theme of the story. The Truman show for example- after a life of being on public display it is great that you don’t know with certainty what
    happens at the end, although there are some pretty strong hints. I agree with you on the ending of life of Pi though.

    • Yeah, an open ending is okay as long as there are enough hints scattered throughout the story to indicate what happens. If it’s left entirely up in the air, though … not a fan 🙂

  29. DJ Lovecraft

    Ambiguous endings annoy me because so many people think films with them are so sophisticated and artsy when all I see is the filmmaker/writer not skilled or talented enough to come up with an ending so they pass it off as high art for the intelligent movie goer.

    • I agree with you … most of the time. For example, although I didn’t necessarily LIKE the ending of Inception, I though it was still a pretty cool way to end the film. But other films … oh, totally. And you can really tell, too, when directors think they’re being all deep and artsy and they really aren’t. I hate those kinds of movies. Ugh!

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