What’s Wrong with Inconclusive Endings?

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?

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7 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Inconclusive Endings?

  1. I have no difficulty with inconclusive endings so long as not everything is left that way. The problem I had with Amber is that for four nights the viewer was following red herrings. In fact sometimes the viewer was following red herrings that the police and other characters were unaware of.
    Basically, the script was weak. If you are going to take an artistic risk and employ an inconclusive ending, then everything else has to be really strong. With Amber, both the acting and the writing was a bit hit and miss over the four nights, so the ending didn’t come off.

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    1. Yeah, it’s certainly good to challenge an audience. The reason why I prefer a conclusion is that you’re rewarding an audience for sticking with that challenge. Thanks for commenting, Fiona.

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  2. I’m with you: I prefer a conclusive ending. Or at least one that resolves the driving question of the plot. It’s fine if some new question is raised at the end, as long as the original one gets answered. One of my favorite stories in which this happens is Carl Sagan’s Contact–both a movie and a book.

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  3. If it doesn’t sound too wishy-washy I like a novel to have both some resolution and some loose ends.
    I didn’t see that programme, but I was thinking about this in relation to my current WIP. I started it without knowing how it was going to end and at one point thought I might just leave it hanging, but I knew that was a copout.
    I think if something is set up as a mystery, then that mystery has to be resolved, but it’s also good to have some aspects inconclusive so that you’re left wondering what’s going to happen to the characters next

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    1. That’s a good middle road to take, Anne. It’ll satisfy both those who like the ends left hanging and those who (like me) prefer them to be wrapped up in a bow. Thanks for the comment.

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  4. I agree with Fiona- the problem with Amber wasn’t an inconclusive ending, rather the fact that the drama was too weak to support it. Instead of making people think about the very important concept of unresolved missing persons, viewers just thought “I suffered through this for THAT??”
    The only noteworthy thing about this programme, I thought, was the structure, where each episode moved across months in time but ended once again on Day 1. That was nicely innovative.

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