Writing ambiguity into the finale of a novel, play, or film is fiendishly tricky. The task is difficult and daunting. It has defeated many a writer, and frustrated many a reader. Yet when done well, it can add tremendous depth and audience pleasure. How should it be approached?
My wife does not care for what she terms “doubt” in tories. She coined this term after watching the 2008 film of John Patrick Shanley’s celebrated play Doubt, about a mother superior exploring whether a priest is guilty of sexual abuse. In that story, “doubt” is the entire point of the narrative, and the ambiguous resolution forces the audience to think through the moral issues raised by the drama.
However, when my wife gives offending examples of stories with “doubt”, it is often the case that the story promised one thing and delivered another. The writer set up particular genre expectations, and instead broke the “rules” to deliver an ambiguous resolution, when the narrative called for clarity. Such instances are typically found when inexperienced, posturing, pretentious authors think themselves “radical” by breaking honored conventions.
Understanding and bending genre convention
In his seminal screenwriting book Story Robert McKee states:
“You are free to break or bend convention, but for one reason only: To put something more important in its place.”
As such, it pays to understand genre expectations, before adding ambiguity that will prove frustrating to the audience. Some stories do not call for ambiguity. For example, denying readers a clear-cut resolution to a Sherlock Holmes mystery or Hercule Poirot whodunit — not revealing the guilty party, how they did it, and why — would obviously be a foolish choice.
But in some murder stories, the identity of the killer can prove irrelevant. The Pledge, a 2001 film starring Jack Nicholson, is a case in point. It opens with the murder of a young girl. Her distraught mother urges Nicholson’s character Jerry Black, a soon-to-retire cop, to “swear on his salvation” that he’ll find the killer. Black is moved, and agrees. He retires from the police, but continues to dig into the case. He works tirelessly, but makes no progress. Clues lead to dead ends. Eventually, Black becomes romantically involved with an abused woman and her child, but uses them as bait in what he hopes will be a trap for the killer. As his quest continues, the film no longer focuses on the identity of the killer, but the depths of Black’s obsession. The ironies of the finale, in which the killer dies and burns in a car crash, renders his identity moot. However, Black has now gone insane, and continues to search, still believing the killer is out there.
In the case of The Pledge, the filmmakers, adapting Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1958 novella The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel, followed McKee’s advice. They broke the genre convention of identifying the killer, and replaced it with something more important: An ambiguous finale leaving the viewer unsettled as to what lies ahead for the now unhinged Jerry Black.
Sometimes the question is better than the answer
In some stories, allowing mysterious events different interpretations can be more satisfying than giving a definite explanation. Joan Lindsey’s novel Picnic at Hanging Rock was deliberately published with the final chapter missing. A variety of interpretations regarding the fate of the schoolgirls ensued, involving everything from murder to pagan deities and alien abduction. Peter Weir’s celebrated film of the novel accentuated themes of repression and sexual awakening, but wisely avoided coming to any definite conclusion. Even after the final chapter of the novel was published posthumously, the surreal events described do not fully satisfy in and of themselves, and are open to wider speculation.
Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey has one of the most famous ambiguous endings in cinema history. Using Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel as a basis, Kubrick’s classic has baffled and intrigued cinemagoers for decades. What on earth does it all mean? Some have derived meaning from explanations in Clarke’s text, but in the film, many questions are thrillingly unanswered.
For example, why does the HAL 9000 computer go mad and murder the crew of the Discovery spacecraft? The non-Kubrick film sequel 2010 posits that HAL had contradictory programming which he interpreted as best he could. An incredibly unsatisfactory answer. My own theory is that when HAL came into contact with the enigmatic, evolution triggering alien monolith orbiting Jupiter, HAL himself began to develop feelings, evolve, and turn on his human creators, believing his survival was at stake. Kubrick’s calculated ambiguity allows for my interpretation, and the story is richer for it.
Drawing different conclusions
Not all stories need to end as enigmatically as 2001, but inviting differing readings of apparently clear-cut events can delight the audience. At first glance, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four appears to end in the bleakest way imaginable. However, the coda discusses Newspeak in the past tense, and in normal English. This insinuates the cruel regime of the novel ultimately fell.
In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, the conclusion casts doubt on Pi’s version of events. Did his survival at sea adventure really involve dangerous animals in a lifeboat? Or were those animals really people who turned on one another, causing Pi to invent a different narrative to repress his traumatic experience? The novel is all the richer for opening it up to interpretation. I find it hard to imagine even the most linear minded of readers would prefer it had that final section been excised.
Terry Gilliam’s much underrated children’s fantasy film Time Bandits has, on the surface, an extraordinarily bleak and cruel conclusion. Young Kevin is drawn into a series of bizarre time-traveling burglaries, with a group of dwarfs who stole a map of time portals from the Supreme Being. Each time portal leads to an important historical figure. In the final scene, after awakening from what is assumed to be a dream, Kevin finds himself being rescued amid a house fire. The firemen discover a burnt roasting joint started the blaze, but Kevin recognizes it as a piece of leftover “evil” from the last of his adventures (when he and the dwarfs confront what is essentially Satan). He yells a warning to his parents not to touch it. His parents ignore the warning, and are instantly obliterated.
Pretty dark for a children’s film? Perhaps. However, Kevin’s parents are established as materialistic, unimaginative bores. Kevin himself essentially renounces them during one of his adventures, when he gets himself adopted by King Agamemnon. played by Sean Connery. One of the firemen, also played by Connery, winks at Kevin as everyone depart the scene, completely ignoring what just happened to Kevin’s parents. A hint that “Agamemnon” will keep an eye on Kevin as he grows up? Given that every time portal led to someone significant, what about the portal that led the dwarfs to Kevin in the first place? Could Kevin be destined for greatness?
Bearing the above in mind, would Time Bandits really be a better film if Kevin woke up, was reunited with his dull parents, and his adventures were all a dream?
What happens next?
Some classic novels end in ways that leave the reader wondering what happened next. In expert hands, with the right story, this can be a hugely effective tool to lodge the narrative in the mind of the reader. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a case in point. The reader wants to know what happens after Offred is bundled into the van, but in fact the narrative is played out. I always liked to extrapolate that Offred escaped, and Atwood’s belated sequel The Testaments proved me right. Nonetheless, I didn’t need to be proved right. The Handmaid’s Tale’s abrupt end is perfect, and as with Nineteen Eighty-Four, we are offered hope for the future in a coda.
Great Expectations is another novel with a famously ambiguous conclusion. Did Pip and Estella ever get together, or were past traumas in their relationship too great to overcome? Conversely, whilst the novel lets the reader decide, I’ve always loved David Lean’s 1946 film adaptation, which settles the matter with an unambiguous happy ending. Because Lean chose to portray Pip in a more sympathetic light, the ending in the film felt earned. The screenplay silently urged viewers to expect it. Dickens, by contrast, was a lot more critical of his protagonist; a protagonist many commentators interpret as something of a self-portrait.
Occasionally, storytelling collaborators disagree on how their tale should be interpreted. For example, what happens next after the seemingly upbeat conclusion of Swedish horror film Let the Right One In? Director Tomas Alfredson, and the novel’s author John Ajvide Lindqvist completely disagreed. Blade Runner is another famous example, with Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott differing on whether Ford’s characte