Ambiguous Endings

I recently read a comment from an editor that said there is a definite art to wrapping up a story. This same editor cited shabby third acts as one of the most common rejectionable offenses. I think there is a lot of truth to that maxim (more as a reader/viewer than as a writer), but I see the other side of the coin also.

A few years ago Stephen King took a lot of heat from his fans for The Colorado Kid. Readers were up in arms that King left the conclusion up to them. The same author was criticized a bit for his wrap-up to The Dark Tower, an ending whose infinite nature I thought was perfectly appropriate, given the complexion of the story arc and our hero, Roland Deschain.

Movies like A Civil Action, whose ambiguous anti-climax (Travolta shrugging, speechless, in a tight close-up) effectively captured the hopelessness of our civil justice system, and No Country for Old Men (an excellent film, across almost every critical criterion) have been taken to task for their open-ended conclusions.

In some cases (and I think this is the case for each of the four works I cited above) I think less is more. It's laudable for an artist to have confidence enough in his or her audience to glean "meaning" from the text without the benefit of overt explanation.

I had an editor request a rewrite on a story that called for a huge chunk of excised "showing" in the third act. His argument was, let's just let them see what they want for themselves. The audience can determine the horror more effectively than we can dictate it to them.

I'm in a similar place with a story I'm revising right now. I wrote a scene that included a blow-by-blow account of the vision in question, then I chopped it. I'm trying to leave the ending far more ambiguous, which allows for a little spectatorial creativity. One of the great strengths of writing horror, I think, is the subjective nature of the subjects that make our skin crawl.

Why not put that individuality to good use?

On another note, I received a personalized rejection on a story I sent to one of the "Big Three" fiction magazines yesterday. I've tried these folks a number of times, and it was gratifying to get a note of encouragement on my progress as a scribbler...


Karen from Mentor said...

Hey Daniel,

I'm not a fan of unasked for critiquing on something I've subbed that the editor isn't interested in publishing. I prefer a simple no thank you, then I sub it elsewhere.

As an editor myself [Pow Fast Flash Fiction] I often receive a request from the author along with their submission of "I would like to see any critiques that you'd like to offer." If I think that I can offer something that I feel will make the piece stronger I often take the time to do so.

I think endings are subjective. What works for some won't work for all, and stories that are ambiguous can be hard for some people to handle because they prefer concrete endings.

Personally I loved A Civil Action.

And I often enjoy an ending that leaves room for interpretation.

Great post.
Karen :0)

Daniel W. Powell said...

Thanks for the note, Karen, and I'm glad to hear that things are moving forward with the magazine!

I'm adding A Civil Action to the Blockbuster list, by the way. I wish Travolta would do a little more of that type of work, rather than the silly action stuff he's doing right now. Pelham 123 was really bad!

I like some ambiguity too, if it improves the story. Roald Dahl, in that collection on the right there, does it in almost all of his stories. He weaves a tremendous yarn, then ends it (a lot like Poe did) before we need to see what happens.

Great zombie sherriff short yesterday!

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...