On Writing: Open Endings

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I was recently watching a Folding Ideas episode on the movie Annihilation which by the way is a great movie (SPOILERS AHEAD) and the video is great too…

But something that stuck with me from the essay, was the statement that ambiguous or open ended endings (let me look up the quote again) frustrate the reader/audience and force them to consider the metaphorical and thematic aspects of a work.

This statement really got me thinking about endings and themes! Before I go any further, I don’t actually have a great memory for this detail in books and movies, so apologies, it does feel a little like I should have a long list to include within this post.

At least I can use Annihilation I suppose 😀

Before I go in that direction though I just want to cover off a few things.

In my opinion open or ambiguous endings are somehow both ironically but by definition hard to pin down. Here are some things that I think are not ambiguous open endings:

Cliff-hangers/Sequel teases – nothing in particular wrong with these endings, in fact I like to get hyped for future episodes/books. But I wouldn’t call a cliff-hanger ambiguous or open exactly. Sure an unresolved situation (such as a person hanging off a cliff) does meet the definition of openness – but its a different kind, its left open for ‘next time’ not left open ‘work it out’

Unresolved, or untied plots – this is a tricky one that some might disagree with, I think many stories often leave a few strings untied, or paths untraveled however this doesn’t mean the ending is ambiguous/open more that the particular resolution was not specifically relevant or perhaps resolving could have actually undermined a more important point. This seems more common in sprawling series/books with many characters.

So what exactly do I think an ambiguous or open ending is?

If I start with Annihilation as an example this may help (again SPOILERS)

A QUICK SUMMARY

In Annihilation, Lena (Natalie Portman) investigates a mysterious alien ‘shimmer’ a massive dome/bubble/blob that is slowly expanding over the U.S. and possibly in the future the world, so far all incursions into the shimmer have resulted in loss of the team, bar Lena’s husband who returned “changed.”

After a variety of cosmic horror challenges, Lena is able to ‘defeat’ a personification of herself and apparently the entire Shimmer, along the way she discovers her apparent husband is some sort of copy. Upon returning Lena is under isolation/quarantine and interacts with her husband/copy and both their eyes show shimmer-esque changes in colour.

The ending is ambiguous and open for lots of reasons, it calls into question Lena’s apparent victory, she obviously did not completely ‘destroy’ the Shimmer, it also leaves open what is her relationship with husband/copy going forward.

Folding Ideas makes fun of all the ‘explained’ videos that claim basically the ending is that the ‘aliens’ won and the Shimmer will continue in Lena and copy. I really have to confess that I didn’t fully understand Annihilation as deeply until watching the video, so I strongly recommend it. Basically the thesis is that the story explores the impacts of pain/trauma/illness on personal identity, how it changes us, sometimes destroying us completely, sometimes changing us into a different person, or can be accepted. It also explores how we impact each other, and ‘blend’ identities.

The ending, of showing Lena and Copy with Shimmery eyes isn’t telling us there is going to be an epic sequel “Too Annihilated Too Shimmery” but that both have been changed by trauma.

Something I particularly love about the film is that while this is an open ending, the film still provides a satisfying climatic resolution. I think when considering open endings this is an area that can get blurry. Just for clarity – the resolution of a climax isn’t typically the ‘end’ of a story, but can feel like it, a resolution is how the main tension is resolved. In my opinion even a highly metaphoric thematic story shouldn’t have an ambiguous resolution, it can be subtle, unexpected or even confusing but a story should still resolve. The ending is more the final settled after the climax, that usually in an unambiguous story will show the new status quo for the characters. Writing this makes me think that the two typically ways of creating open-endings, one is to have uncertainty with the characters – did they change, or what change have they undergone, and/or uncertainty with the setting, it the world the same one they left?

After hearing about this idea of open endings it seems pretty obvious that an open ending calls for a review or closer attention to the story leading up to it, but I never clicked that an ambiguous ending essentially demands a thematic analysis of the story!

That said I don’t think open endings necessarily mean the story is intentionally thematic, there can be other purposes for an ambiguous ending. It may be a call for the reader/audience to make up their own minds about the end, or the point of the ending is to ponder. Another point is that an open ending may stamp an idea more powerfully than clarity – this is slightly different from demanding a thematic review of a story and more that the punctuation of the end hits harder when its open. Just as I write this another example pops to mind – perhaps slight out there…

In Gone with the Wind we spent many hundreds of pages following Scarlett’s journey through hardship after hardship. In the finale we see Scarlett finally completely accept Rhett as her ideal partner, only to have him reject and leave her. We see Scarlett scheme to get him back, and end on the quote “Tomorrow is another day.”

It’s actually a pretty strange ending in many respects, it doesn’t quite go so far as to require a rethink of the entire large novel through a thematic lens, but rather the openness of the ending does have a rather hard impact compared to a more clear finale. The open ending provides us with a statement on the hardness of life with good things being ‘gone with the wind’ while also showing use Scarlett’s determination and hope.

If for example the ending had involved a total split with no future possibilities this would have undermined the messages of hope, hardship and resilience, OR if their relationship was confirmed this too would have undermined the same message by essentially saying eventually you’ll live happily ever after.

Obviously the above point is still dabbling in theme, and I think what I’m discovering as I think through this is that ambiguous endings have a kind of sliding scale of openness and relation to theme.

How about some times not to use Ambiguous endings?

I hope I’ve managed to explain my new learning OK in this post – basically that open endings should be used to hone themes or with a purpose to enhance the story. It might be fun to end with considering some times open endings aren’t so great:

  • When the story is otherwise straightforward. Popping on open ending may have a number of downsides to a more traditional story, it may counter-intuitively draw too much attention to the tale and you don’t want readers to be forced to examine something that is simply meant to be enjoyed.
  • When it has a lot of practical relevance to the characters or world you created. Imagine if Lord of the Rings ended openly – Frodo biffs the ring and the story did actually fade out like the moment in the movies. To be fair this could have created quite the case-study as LOTR does actually have a lot of themes, however ultimately there was a whole world and characters created impacted by the climax of the story, leaving it open would be too literally frustrating and no amount of theme would soothe it.
  • When the thematic meaning is more powerful closed – I don’t think open ends are an instant win in terms of theme heavy stories or injecting meaning. Sometimes a story is stronger both on the surface and thematically with closure. for example Annihilation works because the themes of personal change don’t really lend themselves to resolution, in fact solid closure would undermine that theme. If however you look at something like the Matrix – a reasonably thematic film, it could have ended more openly with Neo becoming the one and then credits rolling – but I don’t think the various themes of escaping the system, discovering your true self etc would have been as strong as having Neo telling us this is how the war ‘starts’.

Funnily enough I always struggled in English class to get behind literary analysis etc, and for a long time I found it quite pompous when people went on about the ‘subtext’ of stories, but these days I can’t get enough, I love analysis!

So thoughts on the topic – any examples of open ended ambiguous endings of movies and books?

Any examples of it done terribly?

Any counter-examples to the above thesis?

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