The ending of your book is arguably one of the most important things to get right. It's the last moments your reader has with the characters before they part ways. The last impression you get to make.
How often have you been disappointed by the conclusion of a story that was going strong until the last chapters? Whether it came out of left field or was simply a letdown that didn't sit right with you, a bad ending has the potential to ruin an otherwise good reading experience.
Endings come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some see things coming full circle. Others take a sharp turn with a shocking twist. And a select few put things into the reader's hands with a more open-ended take, leaving them and their own imaginings to decide where the story would go next.
Ambiguous endings are some of my favorites—that is, when done intentionally.
By this, I mean that the ambiguity is planned not just the consequences of an external power the way we see when television shows get unexpectedly canceled after a season that ended in a cliffhanger with a ton of loose ends. Or for a far more specific example, the Divergent film adaptations coming to an abrupt end after the team behind it followed the lead of similar franchises such as The Hunger Games or Twilight, splitting the last book in the series into two films but only completing Allegiant Part 1 and ultimately not filming the second half (which was later planned to be a made-for-TV-movie that would serve as a pilot for a spin-off Divergent series that was also canceled).
Ambiguous endings grip me as a reader, and they can be hard to write without it feeling as though it for shock value or a cop-out on the author's part in the event they don't actually know what to do with the story and just let it drop off. The questions they leave you with have a habit of sticking in your mind in a fascinating way.
Catching Fire, the second book of The Hunger Games ends with Katniss being picked up from the arena, at which point Gale informs her that her home of District 12 has been bombed. Here, readers are not only left to grapple with the events of the arena and wonder where her fellow Quarter Quell Tributes like Peeta or Johanna are but that, "There is no District 12."
I devoured Catching Fire in about five hours on one Easter Sunday and, let me tell you, fifteen-year-old-me just sat there with my jaw open, as I did the first time Rhett leaves Scarlett at the end of Gone with the Wind.
The Handmaid's Tale leave's June's fate up in the air, as she is left unsure whether to take Nick at his word and trust him as the Eyes come for her. The Giver does similar, showing Jonas running away from his community with baby Gabriel but not making it clear if sledding towards music is a happy ending or a metaphor for death.
And it's this not knowing that clutches on to you after you've finish reading.
But there is one ambiguous ending that has solidified itself as my absolute favorite: The Lady, or The Tiger?
Written by Frank R. Stockton, The Lady, or The Tiger? is a short story that appears frequently in anthologies; that's actually how I was introduced to it, as it was assigned reading during my freshman or sophomore year of high school.
To set the scene for a super-brief summary, picture ancient Rome helmed by a "semi-barbaric" king. Although some of his ideas propel society forward, others are hellish, holding them back. One of his brilliant ideas is designed to leave things up to poetic justice. i.e., karma and luck.
Any person accused of a crime is brought before not a jury of their peers or any other typical legal system but are instead brought to a public arena. The verdict is left simply to chance.
There are two doors in the arena. One holds a lady deemed a suitable match for the accused. Behind the other is a tiger, hungry and ready to tear the victim limb from limb.
As far as this system of justice is concerned, an innocent person will be met by the awaiting lady. If guilty, they are condemned to death by the tiger's jaws.
The king gets word that his daughter has fallen in love with a man who has no royal blood and is beneath them in status, and has him imprisoned. Using her own standing and power, the princess learns where the lady and the tiger are positioned at the time of her lover's trial. She's also learned that the lady representing innocence is someone she wholeheartedly dislikes and considers a rival.
Should the man be declared innocent in the king's arena, he will become betrothed to the woman. If guilty, he dies.
In other words, the princess loses her love either way. All she can do is decide if she is willing to let him go and make peace the loss, or decide that if she cannot have him, no one can.
At the time of the trial, the man looks to the princess for a hint and she discreetly indicates a door.
The twist at the end is that we don't know what happens when that door opens. Instead, it's left up for the reader to decide.
"And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door—the lady, or the tiger?" ~Frank R. Stockton
Sounds like your typical ambiguous ending, right?
The thing is, the ending you choose as a reader is meant to reflect who you are as a person.
As my English teacher explained, believing that the princess chose the door with the woman waiting on the other side indicated you are more benevolent or more willing to put the good of another's well-being above your own, but also more inclined towards passivity and not always being able to stand your ground. If you leaned more towards the tiger ending, it was a sign you were perhaps more prone to jealousy or feeling insecure when posed with competition, but also more assertive and self-reliant.
This is just one interpretation, of course.
It honestly blew my mind when I first read it. After having encountered so many ambiguous endings in which the goal is to leave things open-ended for the reader to decide or to keep readers in suspense and encourage their theorizing until the next installment of a series provides resolution, the notion of The Lady, or The Tiger? being able to make a statement not about the characters but the reader observing them was something else.
Ambiguous endings are something I have yet to master, and I honestly don't think I ever will. Even though I like to leave a few open ends, that's often with the intention of foreshadowing future projects and the paths characters may one day take, especially more secondary characters who I envision stepping into the spotlight down the road. There is an element of connectivity at play. Loose ends that aren't going to stay so forever.
To this day, I cannot recall any piece of writing that has made me feel like The Lady, or The Tiger? does. It's not about the characters or the direction of the story in future chapters. It takes things a step further, crossing a line.
Because The Lady, or The Tiger? brings readers into the story by asking themselves which door they would open.