Ambiguity

July 26, 2010

Brand Gamblin (vidcaster, writer, and creator extraordinaire and author of the novel Tumbler and one of the stories in our first issue) had this to tweet “You know what “Nebulous ending” means? It means you didn’t have the stones to finish the story.”  To give you some context, he was replying to a post on i09 concerning the end of Battlestar Galactica.

It raised some good conversation and I’d like to take a minute of your time and gauge what you think of such ambiguity in the fiction you consume.

Zach made it clear in his post on what we buy that resolution is important, but does that mean you have to answer every question?  My own personal opinion is no.  One of my favorite horror writers of the moment, Paul E. Cooley apparently has a well earned reputation for leaving things somewhat open ended/ambiguous and I like that.  I don’t need to know what the monster is exactly.  Or even if it is a monster that our protagonist has been facing.

Having said that, in any story it’s as important to reel in the fish you’ve been fighting as it is to set the hook.  Get that thing flopping around on the deck at least.  There has to be a pay off of some kind.  Leave room for a sequel or give your audiences something to chew over, but give us a complete arc.

That’s my two bits worth.  What do you say?

7 Comments

  • Nobilis Reed says:

    So I take it that the author of the classic short story “The Lady or the Tiger,” Frank Stockton, “didn’t have the stones to finish the story”?

    Bollocks, I say.

    Like anything else, the nebulous ending is a literary device which only works when used properly.

  • Scott Roche says:

    Well said Nobilis.

  • I completely agree with Nobilis.

    Ambiguous endings have recently gotten a bad rap thanks to some recent very high profile cases of them being done poorly (BSG). That doesn’t mean that they are inherently bad.

    The ending of Crying of Lot 49 is a fantastic ending (though the book isn’t necessarily fantastic) and many Philip K. Dick novels have great ambiguous endings. I’d argue that Memento has an ambiguous ending and it’s a great one.

    The problem is when a device is used poorly or unintentionally. For instance, I’m not sure if the unlikeable main character Ethan Hawke played in Daybreakers was intentional or not, but it didn’t work. It almost serves to illustrate the times when the device has been used well.

    We don’t throw out the device that worked so well in District 9 and Clockwork Orange because it fell flat in Daybreakers.

  • Zach Ricks says:

    First, what about the ending of Battlestar Galactica was ambiguous? (Rant on BSG’s ending PRE-EMPTED.)

    All kidding aside, though, there’s places where an ambiguous ending works. For example, look at the end of Total Recall, or Inception. Incidentally, those endings are essentially identical. But the main conflict was resolved. It’s like the difference between plot and subplot. The Plot in Total Recall concerned Arnold Schwarzenegger kicking butt and saving Mars from Cohaagen and Michael Ironside. That plot gets resolved with extreme prejudice. But there was an underlying subplot that questioned whether or not anything that happened to Schwarzenegger was real after he shows up to Rekall. Some people say it wasn’t – and that Schwarzenegger’s character wound up a vegetable after a brain embolism. Some people say (quite reasonably) that alien reactors creating atmosphere on Mars are AWESOME, fit in perfectly with infinite ammo guns as were used in Total Recall and that the first group should just shut up. But both factions have good arguments to back them up. That’s a good ambiguous ending, and I would love to see something with that kind of a twist be published in FlagShip.

  • jhite says:

    I hate to state the obvious here, but we are talking about stories as if they are all the same. They are not cookies, that have been cut from a cookie cutter. Each story is unique, and if it can have a nebulous ending or not depends largely on how well the author pulled off the rest of the story, not to mention the story itself. If you right, a story you have to have some resolution, otherwise what you have written is a wondering character sketch. With out at least a little resolution you don’t have a story. That is not to say that if you have any ended that you have a story, sometimes that ending is not enough, but for this discussion we will just say that, you have to have some sort of an ending, with at least some resolution for the major plot points.

    I think as a general rule you can’t leave the answer to you major plot point hanging in the wind at the end of the story. If the universe is about to end because the bad guy just set a bomb off at the center of the galaxy, we kind of need to know if the universe ended.

    I picked this example because it kind of sits on the fence. If the universe is going to end, who is going to be there to report about it, so you could have your hero in the middle of trying to disarm the bomb when the story just ends. You kind of get the idea that he failed and the universe ended. Not a very happy ending, but at the same time you don’t actually answer the question, thus you have a nebulous ending.

    In the end, it is my opinion, that if you are not going to answer the questions at the end of your story, then you have to give the reader enough information that they feel like they could answer the questions if they wanted to. Maybe if they did some research on universe destroying bombs they could find out if the universe really ended, or if it was just the end of your story.

  • DDog says:

    I am usually more pleased with ambiguous endings that are integral to the main plot. There’s an episode of L&O: SVU that ends before the verdict is delivered; and as the entire episode dealt with whether the sex in question was consensual or not, I thought it was a very appropriate ending.

    Or if it’s a sub-ending, after the bulk of the plot has been wrapped up. A strong aspect of Philippa Ballantine’s Chasing the Bard is the (sort of) will-they-or-won’t-they aspect of Sive and Will’s relationship. So the final scene, after the climactic ending, is perfectly appropriate and perfectly ambiguous. The author says she left it to the reader to decide and gives her own idea of what happened in the sequel.

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