Ambiguous Endings: Brilliant or Lazy?

Due to the nature of this blogpost, there will be spoilers for The Giver and for Inception (the movie). So consider yourself forewarned.

I recently saw Inception for the second time and it made me think again about ambiguous endings. At the end of Inception, the filmmaker doesn’t say specifically what happens in. We’re left wondering: Did the main character get home? Or was he still dreaming?

I found myself looking for “clues”, like “The top stopped spinning in this segment but not that segment!” or “The character keeps talking about how to tell dreams from reality, is that meant to be ironic?” I just wanted to find out what the “real answer” was. But when I found out there was no answer, that it was meant to just be ambiguous, I couldn’t decide whether I was disappointed or not.

Similarly in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, we are left scratching our heads in the end. Does Jonas survive? Does he make it to a new home? And if so, is it a good home? And my initial reaction to this ambiguity was a negative one, but now I can’t quite decide. Why should the author spell it out? Shouldn’t the reader be left with something to think about?

Here’s what Lowry has to say about the ending:

I will say that I find it an optimistic ending. How could it not be an optimistic ending, a happy ending, when that house is there with its lights on and music is playing? So I’m always kind of surprised and disappointed when some people tell me that they think that the boy and the baby just die. I don’t think they die. What form their new life takes is something I like people to figure out for themselves. And each person will give it a different ending.

When writing my own stories, I have to say I find the endings the hardest to write. They have to be satisfying yet not too wrapped-up (or you can’t ever write a sequel!), slower paced than the climax, but not so slow that the reader ends up skimming the whole thing just to finish (which I have done with a lot of books). So I’ve struggled with the deciding what to leave ambiguous and what to spell out.

In some ways an ambiguous ending seems like it would be much easier to write. Having trouble deciding whether your main character gets married or not? Just leave it ambiguous! You don’t have to figure out what happens to your characters in the end, you can just leave it up to everyone else to decide.

Here’s what the filmmaker (Christopher Nolan) says about Inception’s ending:

“I’ve been asked the question more times than I’ve ever been asked any other question about any other film I’ve made,” he says. “What’s funny to me is that people really do expect me to answer it.”

Nolan adds that he tries to leave his movies open to interpretation. “There can’t be anything in the film that tells you one way or another because then the ambiguity at the end of the film would just be a mistake,” he says. “It would represent a failure of the film to communicate something. But it’s not a mistake. I put that cut there at the end, imposing an ambiguity from outside the film. That always felt the right ending to me.”

The real point of the scene, he explains, is that Cobb is looking at his kids and not the top. “He’s left it behind,” says Nolan. “That’s the emotional significance of the thing.”

How do you know when an ambiguous ending is the “right ending” for your story and not just the lazy way out? (And I do think your readers will be able to tell the difference!)

I guess it’s like any other plot point or word choice in your story, you just have to go with your gut, leave it up to your divine inspiration, your muse, your critique partners, whatever. In other words, I’m leaving you with an ambiguous end to this blog post. Because it just feels right.

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