I was once taken to task by a reader when a short story I wrote wasn’t all wrapped up at the end and neatly tied up with a bow. He found it unsatisfactory that a story should end without answering all the questions, solving all the problems, and, if not with a happy ending, at least one with good triumphing over evil.
While “happy” or clearly resolved endings are the norm in literature, they are far from normal in real life. The world we live in is messy. Sometimes the bad guys win. Sometimes nobody wins. Things seldom turn out the way we want them to.
To my way of thinking, there’s a lot more ambiguity in life than clarity or closure. And that ought to be reflected in literature.
One of my favorite movies is The Mission. It’s set in a remote South American mission during the Spanish conquest. When it’s over, you’re left to wonder which of the two padres—who share the same fate but come to it from opposite directions—is the hero and which is the goat. Ambiguity at its best.
I think it is good to allow—even force—readers to participate in a story, and ambiguity can do that. And, if a writer leaves readers with questions rather than answers, a story can last long after the book is closed.
Let’s close this book with a bit of wisdom from Stanley Kubrick: “Ambiguity is the end product of avoiding superficial, pat truths.”
If you are or aspire to be a writer, you can learn more lies—and truths—about writing at the Write Here in Ephraim Writers Conference, April 22-23.