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  1. andrewdj
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    andrewdj Member

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    Can a novel end with questions unanswered?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by andrewdj, Feb 11, 2011.

    Hello, new here!

    I wrote my first short story before Christmas that I enjoyed so much I thought it might make an interesting screenplay, but decided I'd first take the basic idea and try to expand it into a novel, which is why I've now signed up to this creative writing forum today :)

    The short story itself was a horror, that never actually revealed who or what the antagonist was - but for a few subtle hints that suggested it might be a supernatural occurrence - and had no resolution to it other than the protagonists survived, unharmed, suffering nothing more than a rather chilling night.

    This has essentially formed the basis of the first half of my novel, with the events of that night climaxing in a different way but still unresolved, which then leads into the second half of the novel, set a few years later.

    The question I have, is that I don't think I want to go down the route of an explicit ending explaining exactly what happened and why. I would like to maintain the question of whether it was psychological or supernatural, and end it in a way that is ambiguous as to who or what was ultimately responsible for the events in the book, similar to how some films end in a way that leaves you asking for your interpretation of the events, Inception, Shutter Island and Blade Runner come to mind.

    Is this generally accept in the literature world or do most people prefer signposted endings that wrap up everything nicely? I admit my knowledge of literature is rather lacking, I haven't read much more than a few crime novels by Mark Billingham, and a handful of (auto)biographies = hence my examples from the world of film rather than books.*


    My aim is to finish this novel and then develop it into a screenplay, with the first film ending at the conclusion of the first half of the novel, which I personally think is an interesting climax in itself.

    * I'm aware that Shutter Island and Bladerunner began as a novel and short story respectively, I've just not read them so don't know if the ambiguous nature of their film versions were taken from the original source.
     
  2. Terry D
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    Terry D Active Member

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    Sure, novels can have ambiguous endings and leave the reader with lots of questions, but the ending has to be satisfying for the reader. Readers do not like to spend hours, or days with a book only to be left with no answers at all.

    You really need to spend time reading if you plan to write. You wouldn't expect a musician to be able to write music without listening to it too.
     
  3. Allegro Van Kiddo
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    Allegro Van Kiddo Contributing Member

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    I love novels like that.

    I also enjoy tragic endings and where everything the characters did was for nothing. Those are very existential themes.
     
  4. Edward G
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    Edward G Banned

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    I’m not sure how you can suggest Blade Runner or Shutter Island had ambiguous endings, but be that as it may, what you are describing is running the risk of not being a story.

    All stories have characters involved in a conflict that must be resolved one way or the other. Consider Jack and Jill with an ambiguous ending:

    Jack and Jill ran up the hill to fetch a pail of water…or did they?

    Just doesn’t have the same kick, does it?

    And I completely agree with Terry, you need to read more. You can go see all the movies you want, play whatever fantasy video games you want, text memoirs back and forth with your friends all day long, but an hour a day, you need to be reading a novel. Something you like. I like to read before I go to sleep at night.

    I know how it is: you get this idea and you think it would make a great story, but between the idea and the completion of a work of gothic literary art is a lot discipline and education. If you want to be a writer, then be one. If you only want the badge of a writer, buy one.
     
  5. guamyankee
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    guamyankee Contributing Member

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    ok, how do you delete a post?
     
  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    of course it can, but shouldn't...
     
  7. Ellipse
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    Ellipse Contributing Member Contributor

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    A story can end with questions unanswered provided those questions are just small teasers for the next book or you want the reader to figure them out on their own. It also varies slightly on the situation

    However, if the question is something important like your MCs are on a quest to get a sword to prevent evil from using it and you never answer what the sword does, then your story has a problem.
     
  8. Acanthophis
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    Acanthophis ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) Contributor

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    I know it isn't a Novel, but look at the movie Inception. It ends (Spoiler ahead) leaving you wondering if the whole movie was really a dream or not. Novels can be the same way, I can't recall names, but I know I've read a few that leave you wondering what you had wondered shortly after you started reading.
     
  9. andrewdj
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    andrewdj Member

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    if I recall, Blade Runner was originally ambiguous in whether Deckard was himself a replicant. Various releases since have made the answer clearer I believe, but the original edit was much less obvious?

    Shutter Island (the film) ends with a single line of dialogue, that I'm told doesn't exist in the book, and I can't really quote the context in case it spoils for others who've not seen it. But suffice to say, that single line of dialogue leaves you debating the meaning of earlier dialogue, and suggests the complete opposite of what the book suggests, depending on how you interpret that line of dialogue.

    That wasn't the end of the story though - the climax DOES have an ambiguous ending, e.g. what made Jack fall, and why did Jill mysteriously come tumbling after? This itself would be a poor attempt of what I suggest though, unless the writer took steps to subtly suggest a reason for them falling, without explicitly saying it was twig, e.g. perhaps Jill pushed Jack, but lost balance in the process...

    In addition, an ambiguous ending does not equal lack of conflict. A story can still have conflict and have elements of ambiguity, case in point, Inception, and the aforementioned Shutter Island, if you consider the film, rather than the book.

    Duly noted, and I will try to increase the number of books I read.

    Agreed, which is rather why I have started looking for local creative writing groups, signed up to this forum and visited a number of websites, reading what makes a good fictional story, themes in fiction, more practical advice such as tagging dialogue (a mistake I made in my original short story). I don't suggest for a minute that this is the limit of the education required, but it's a start, and all beginners have to start somewhere.

    To quote from perhaps one of the greatest epic stories of all time, I find your lack of faith disturbing ;)
     
  10. Ellipse
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    Ellipse Contributing Member Contributor

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    Total Recall (an old Governnator movie:) ) is a movie that has an ambiguous ending. Clues throughout the movie keep you guessing whether the MC is in a dream or if he is really is the person everyone claims him to be.
     
  11. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    You could answer questions, but do so in such a way that it creates a whole new host of unanswered questions. This way, you're not leaving a giant gaping whole, but you also end with ambiguity and open the door for a sequel (if you ever want to write one).

    For example, read the short story "The Beast in the Cave" by H.P. Lovecraft (it's online). It answers the story's mystery at the end, but in such a way that makes the readers think "Whoa....how/why!?!!?!??" and could easily open up a whole new horror novel on its own.
     
  12. lost123
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    lost123 Senior Member

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    Yes, you can
     
  13. andrewdj
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    andrewdj Member

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    Thanks for that recommendation, my son is watching Jurassic Park, so I have some time to kill this morning and will read it now.
     
  14. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    All mine have endings which are of the life will go on variety, two are positive, one is not (although thinking of adding short epilogue scenes to each having written one for my last one) - Little Women is perhaps my favourite that doesn't answer everything.
     
  15. Edward G
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    Edward G Banned

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    My lack of faith in what? You?

    Let me tell you what most beginning writers are, and I'm not saying this is you, but if you are disturbed with my lack of faith, then allow me to share an observation I made a long time ago: most wannabe writers are narcissists who can't take criticism and are incapable of real growth. They believe they are gifted without trying, talented without working, and they know everything without studying. And if you don't "get them," then somehow it's your fault--not theirs, because their words are golden.

    The really sad part is there are lots of self-publishing companies that prey on just these types of new writers, because of course, they never find publication any other way.

    So, I suppose you are right. I have no faith in new writers, as a rule; until, that is they produce a short story that's at least an interesting read or finish a novel that's worth turning the pages--but then at that point they aren't new writers anymore, are they?

    That's just my take on things.
     
  16. andrewdj
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    andrewdj Member

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    Your observation is not just applicable to writing either - musicians, actors, artists, in fact, even outside of the art world, beginners are often shown similar distrust in their ability until they've proven to be competent.

    This isn't unusual as I have made similar observations on a music forum that I used to be a regular contributor to. I've witnessed many a newbie handle criticism in the same way you describe, when it came to musical productions that lacked key concepts such as structure, melody, timing, key, in the name of "punk" or "art", rather than what most people with an ear for it would call god-awful noise.

    So, let me tell you what most critics are, and I'm not saying this is you, but allow me to share an observation I made a long time ago: most critics are rather narcissistic egotistical people who clearly have (in most cases god given) talent, but generally look down upon beginners because they will never match up to their own ability. In addition, they are usually frustrated by the fact that they have seen, on more than one occasion, a beginner receive what they believe to be undeserved recognition, while their own works of genius have been overlooked. But it's acceptable to have this attitude towards them, because they are an expert in their field, their words are golden, and the buying public know nothing about real art.

    Unfortunately criticism of art has is sometimes a subjective thing, wrongly in my opinion, in that the critic will judge it on the content rather than the technical aspect of the work. This is poor criticism in my opinion, and while there are undoubtedly perfect critics out there, there are also poor critics much like there are poor beginners.

    Again, I'm not saying this is you, I'm just explaining that having been on both sides of criticism before, and I know how to give it, and how to handle it. :)

    My point, to summarise, is that while your attitude towards beginners is both common and will mostly turn out to be a correct judgement, the unfortunate side effect is that it can also alienate those who will take that prejudiced stance to heart and decide to give up before they've even begun, despite them actually having potential.

    Not that I'm saying this is me, I'm made of thicker skin. I will write the novel regardless, and could well be the literary equivalent of those musical newbies my contemporaries and I shot down in flames all those years ago, however I always accept criticism that comes my way, so that I can make my work and my ability better for it, and this writing experience will be no different.

    I just thought I would lend my support to those who may be in a similar position to myself.
     
  17. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Not really, House of Leaves does not really answer any questions, and that's a pretty good book.

    James Joyce had a hard-on for open endings too.


    It really depends on what you want out of the ending: sometimes a book that does not answer all the questions could just be because of the writers incompetence, other times it's a strategic move.

    It all depends on how well you write.
     
  18. andrewdj
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    andrewdj Member

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    I guess it's because I prefer slow building horror as opposed to slashers, and I like films where the "supernatural" element could initially have a reasonable explanation - I'm thinking films like the The Exorcism of Emily Rose, most of The Last Exorcism, before the ending, and "reality" horror, like Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch Project, and so on. I guess I want to avoid explicitly saying the it was the Devil, or the "Devil made me do it" because that alienates people who don't believe in that concept. Keeping it open, but leaving subtle clues that could hint at something more than the "obvious" answer is what I'm essentially aiming for, but then I'm aware that attempting to please everyone usually then pleases no-one.
     
  19. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, if they are unanswered in a way that the reader finds satisfying.
     
  20. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i thought it would be understood that i meant 'shouldn't' in the general sense, as of course there are always exceptions to any rule... as for this one, they're so rare as to do more to prove the rule than disprove it...
     
  21. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think no-or-few-unanswered-questions is an anglosaxian first and foremost and to some degree an western cultural preference. If you take a look at Chinese, Korean, and Japanese movies and literature for example, you see other trends. Like the japaneese "Mono no aware" style endings.
     
  22. Henry The Purple
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    Henry The Purple Active Member

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    It entirely depends on what the questions are, but the most significant ones should be answered. That is not to say that you have to spell things out to the reader or spoon-feed them...just provide the subtle clues they need to figure it out for themselves. Again, it's entirely dependent on what you are writing.
     
  23. nhope
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    nhope Contributing Member Reviewer

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    If in real life all questions aren't answered, why should they be in fiction? Sometimes there is no answer, things are the way they are.

    Endings should fit the story; they should leave the reader pondering, and with a feeling none other than "yes, that is how it should end." It should end as it should.
     
  24. guamyankee
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    guamyankee Contributing Member

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    Anybody see the movie "Picnic at Hanging Rock"? I didn't like it at first, but the more I contemplated it afterwards, it kind of grew on me.
     
  25. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    The problem I had with your post is it was too vague. I was just making it clearer, though we are essentially saying the same thing.
     

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