Wednesday, 6 March 2013

On Ambiguous Endings

So, The Shelter. It’s generally got very positive reviews, but recently a couple of stinkers have trickled in. Which is just one of those things, obviously – don’t worry, this isn't going to be one of those posts where a minor author no one's ever heard of has a massive sweary breakdown just because they got a one-star review. But I do read all the reviews I get and I did think there was a certain common factor that both these two were complaining about:
“It didn't say much about [the] being in the shelter. I didn't think it was a horror story more a book about things playing with a boys mind.”

“You never find out what's down there or even get a description. !!”
I think these reviewers were expecting a more traditional horror story, with an ending where Alan Dean confronts the thingymabob in the shelter, finds out what it is, and defeats it, somehow. 

Well, The Shelter was never going to be that kind of story - as you’ll know if you've read the afterword, I conceived of it over fifteen years ago and whilst much has changed between then and the final draft, the ending has always been the same. So I'm relatively relaxed about those reviews as they relate to the story itself (although arguably my blurb needs to make it clearer what kind of book this actually is).
What it seems these reviewers are both complaining about, when you get down to it, is ambiguity. I've spoke a lot about ambiguity in the Strange Stories feature on this blog and generally praised it as something that distinguishes a good weird fiction story from an average one. I've mentioned different kinds of ambiguity, from not fully revealing the ‘monster’ (“You never find out what's down there!”) to ambiguity of perception (“more a book about things playing with a boys mind” – I love that angle on the The Shelter, actually).
But it’s an unfortunate fact that, whilst I believe such ambiguity is crucial to a certain type of horror fiction, it isn't very commercial. At all. From a commercial fiction point of view, the story of The Shelter might appear to be literally unfinished – what happens when Alan goes back? Does he find out what is down there? Does he defeat it? You're not telling me the whole story, godamnit! There’s nothing wrong with stories with that type of traditional structure, and I enjoy reading them if they’re well written, but as a writer my main interests are elsewhere. (This perceived need for narrative closure in commercial fiction probably goes a long way to explaining the commercial superiority of the novel over the short story and novella, but that’s another post.)
But, crucially, ambiguity doesn't mean arbitrary. I didn't stop the story of The Shelter at a random point just to be annoying or because my writer's cramp was flaring up. It stopped at the point where there was nothing more to say about Alan Dean’s flight from his past. He has finally decided to go back. I'm sure we've all been in situations where we've agonised over an important decision and then, once we've made it immediately felt better just because the decision has been made. The result of that decision almost doesn't matter that much. One way or another the die is cast, and we feel better for it.
That was the kind of closure I was going for with the story of Alan Dean. From that perspective, the ending isn't ambiguous at all. It ends at exactly that point where the central character's mental dilemma is resolved. In fact I'd go one further: continuing the story would have introduced more ambiguity, because whatever happened would have inevitably cast doubt on the rightness or otherwise of Alan's decision...

Maybe there are no truly unambiguous endings. Maybe, like life, all the author can do is trade off one set of ambiguities against another.

The Shelter (UK | US)


MRCosby said...

Very interesting post. I agree with your comments, although with regard to the commercial aspects of ambiguous stories, do you not think that perhaps readers are becoming amore sophisticated? I'm thinking for example of the (relative) success of a book like Hawthorn and Child.

James Everington said...

Hi Martin - I'm not sure (I've never heard of Hawthorn and Child I don't think?) but it would be nice if that were true.

I'm not suggesting that no books published by a big publisher which make tons of £££S aren't ambiguous in any way (even someone like Stephen King has some ambiguous endings) just that I think, if you asked those kind of publishers their Platonic ideal of a commercial book, an ending that tidies up everything would be at the top of their list...

MRCosby said...

You're right of course. Take my advice and read Hawthorn and Child, by Keith Ridgway. It's a fascinating concept.

Unknown said...

For me, stories are about going on a journey, therefore you must end up somewhere different to where you started. I do think as a reader, you are looking for some kind of reward for your investment in the story and the characters - a conclusion of some kind - but not necessarily a nice neat ending where everything is wrapped up. It's been a while since I read The Shelter, but from memory it was Alan's story so I never felt cheated at the end - he reached a conclusion. But as ever, writing is so open to interpretation that it's impossible to hit the right notes for everybody. I've read ambiguous endings when not expecting them and in the wrong frame of mind for it and felt cheated. One persons ambiguity is another's bad timing. Do you worry about it? Yep :-)

Iain Rowan said...

Looking forward to reading th--

don’t worry, this isn't going to be one of those posts where a minor author no one's ever heard of has a massive sweary breakdown just because they got a one-star review


I love ambiguity in horror, as for me the unknown is always scarier than the known. The fear in The Shelter comes from the situation, from empathy with the character, and - for me at least - it would be a less scary story if your character looked back and saw a nazi zombie clown. Exaggerating I know, but only slightly. The sheer inexpicability, the universe-bending impossibility, the world turned upside down weirdness is a far scarier and disorienting prospect than something which can be known, labelled, categorised and explained.

Unknown said...

Just checked - no books with nazi zombie clowns in them (well, according to the first 6 pages of a google search). Market's wide open for an ambiguous short story from the clowns perspective (would clown get first billing, or the zombie bit? I'm assuming nazi doesn't get a look in).

James Everington said...

ALL clowns are zombies - fact.

Darcia Helle said...

Well said, James. The things those two reviewers didn't like about your story were among the many things I loved about it. I agree with Colin; the story is about the journey, and that is something you excel at.

As writers, we'll never be able to please every reader. I love how you were able to find a positive in those negative reviews.