I was discussing ambiguous endings in horror stories with my peers, especially in film – but it holds for literature as well.
If done correctly, an ambiguous ending can leave a lingering mystery that makes the audience hungry for more – but doesn’t rob them of their satisfaction. Case-in-point: the endings of The Thing (1982) and The Blair Witch Project. Some people didn’t particularly care for the ending in Blair Witch, but I thought it was rather apt.
To toot my own horn, I worked such an ambiguity into my horror novel Dead Reckoning. Many readers ask me much about the unanswered questions in the novel. These questions are of that vein; they allow the reader/viewer to draw their own conclusions, but don’t insult them at the same time or leave it alone like “WTF?”
I suppose an ending that resolves itself completely can be satisfactory too. This depends on the type of story and the theme it’s based upon. A mystery never has to be answered fully; an experience isn’t always resolved. In Alien, Ripley gets the Alien to blast itself away into space through an airlock; the monster is gone and the story is resolved. To tell the truth, ALIENS doesn’t need to be made. ALIEN stopped. It’s a me versus it in a survivalist movie. Now, you get THE THING (1982) and you have two men sitting there watching each other warily because we don’t know if they are a Thing or if they’re human. That’s genius because the WHOLE STORY is about paranoia.
Great stories have great endings. The ending in a brilliant plot reflects the nature of the story.
But, what is the NATURE of a story? Literary or film? We can talk themes. We can talk style or narrative. But what is the NATURE of the story? The nature is what is derived not only from the plot elements, but the tone – the voice of the story. When the storyteller understands the nature of the story – it becomes genius.
I suppose, in its way, a story – whether literary or film – has a very distinct personality within it. It’s elements are tethered together in its nature.