Last week, 700,000 television viewers in Ireland watched a series about a missing teenager called Amber. The series ended up being a big water-cooler topic, particularly the ending, which left more questions than answers. I hopped on the bandwagon and posted the following comment on Facebook.
A note to the producers of the TV series Amber. If you are asking your audience to commit to watching a drama for four nights in a row, have the decency to reward that audience with a solid conclusion.
Shock horror, not all my Facebook followers agreed with me! They raised valid points about how the ending reflected real life, which often offers no conclusion. Since the series was about a missing person case, it made sense to them that the case should be left unresolved. But I stand by my view that, to borrow the title of a Julian Barnes novel, these viewers deserved ‘the sense of an ending.’
Here’s why I think inconclusive endings are a bad idea. I’m referring to books, but these points could apply to all forms of storytelling.
1. They don’t reward readers
If someone has followed your through to the end, that’s a great privilege. It means they thought enough of your story to persevere, and they believed enough in the world you created to become immersed in it. I think it’s only fair then that those readers be rewarded for their effort with a sense of resolution. This doesn’t mean the ending has to be trite or happy. It’s just good to feel that a story is complete.
2. They’re Breaking the Rules
It’s true that some stories don’t follow the traditional form, and readers of those stories will probably be happy to be left with an ambiguous ending. It’s also true that once an author knows the rules, they’re free to break them. But if you are following the traditional beginning-middle-end format in a greater or lesser form, then you need to follow them through to the end. Otherwise you’re in danger of implying that rules are just for the little people.
3. They Drop the Ball
When a story ends ambiguously, it can sometimes feel as if an author ran out of steam or didn’t quite know what to do to finish off the story, so they simply allow the story to putter to a halt. We have a lot of expectations of endings, so we like our build-ups to finish in a satisfying explosion. Authors need to stay with their own story to the end, not just 90% of the way.
Are you a fan of the inconclusive ending? Or do you prefer your stories wrapped up in a bow? What endings have thoroughly satisfied you and what endings have left you wanting?