How Do You Feel When Fiction Leaves Big Questions Unanswered? (My Thoughts)

This blog post is actually about a specific show, but I’m hesitant to spoil that the show leaves a critical question unanswered. So I’m just going to talk about the general concept of this decision in fiction, and if you want to see the name of the show, you can scroll down to the first level of spoilers. If you want to see my thoughts about that show and how it applies to this topic, you can scroll even further to the second level of spoilers.

I recently watched a miniseries that poses a massive question in the first episode. The characters spend the rest of the show trying to answer that question (while the audience is doing the same). Given that it’s a work of fiction, a stand-alone series, and that the mystery is the heart of the show, we were expecting the final episode to clearly answer the core question…and then it didn’t.

I understand why writers do this–the point isn’t the answer to the question, but rather the impact on the people/world/etc. But it’s fiction. You must have an idea in your head. The writer knows what happens when the camera cuts away at the end of Inception or The Sopranos. We gave you our time and money–please give us the answer! Even if it’s in the end-credits so there’s at least some level of debate and wonderment.

What do you think? Can you think of any examples where you’re glad you didn’t know the answer?

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***SPOILERS LEVEL 1***

The show is Defending Jacob on Apple TV.

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***SPOILERS LEVEL 2***

Despite its difficult subject, I really enjoyed Defending Jacob. The twists and turns, the characters, the psychological element, the courtroom drama, the foreshadowing…every episode had me wanting more.

But I really see no reason why the central question isn’t clearly answered. This isn’t real life where mysteries go unsolved. This is fiction, and the writer must know the answer. I’ve read that the book is a little clearer on the answer, but not completely so.

If you watched Defending Jacob, were you bothered by this? Either way, what’s your theory: Did Jacob do it? Even as I ask that, I’m further frustrated that were weren’t given a clear answer. Jacob is a fictional character. He only did or didn’t do it if the author decides he did or didn’t, and the only way we know what the author decides is if they tell us.

4 thoughts on “How Do You Feel When Fiction Leaves Big Questions Unanswered? (My Thoughts)”

  1. I like it when questions are unanswered. To me, it mimics reality in the same way you described, but also I like that the author mentally/spiritually creates room for any speculation to be true, magnifying the original impact of the story.

    Instead of holding a stick with one pointy end, you’re now holding a stick with multiple branches. Just got a lot more bang for your buck!

    I also think it’s a way to engage readers in a way that can’t be duplicated otherwise: the author invites the reader/viewer to determine the ending. Almost feels like a game of sorts- “What will you accomplish in world X?”

    I also think it’s interesting that you point out that writers do this to demonstrate the impact on people and the world that the story entails, I think this could be true, but often when I experience an unanswered question it is an extremely powerful hook that keeps me going- even if I know it’s a hook just for hook’s sake. In these cases, the “answer” is usually kitschy and not received well. “It was all a dream” kind of thing.

    Reply
  2. In many cases, the hanging ending is a nod to the producers’ desire to greenlight another season, or open the franchise to other media such as comics or a film, or even sell on to another distribution channel.

    But in the case of the TV show you mentioned, it fits thematically. Can we ever really know someone, what they did or why? And what do our projected biases and prejudices say about who we are?

    And then there’s endings such as Lost with which had no problem but infuriated a great many loyalists.

    Maybe there’s an opportunity to convert this IP into a game, and then write your own ending, Jamey? At the very least, you’ll learn under NDA what was the writer’s intention (but it may be disappointing).

    Reply
  3. Often when questions are answered the reality isn’t as good as what I’ve imaged in my head, so I enjoy the ambiguity.

    Nate earlier mentions Lost – I never was clamouring for answers there. Speculation was fun, and I think too many revelations would be akin to when you see into the back lot at Disneyland, and you realise that most of Pirates of the Carribean is in a big, white, warehousy looking building.

    Demystification can be a buzz-kill.

    Reply
  4. I liked Inception open ending. I despised Lost ending not because it was open but because the show never measured up to the enigmas they teased during the first three seasons.
    So my conclusion is that, just like with any other thing, open endings can be done well or wrong.

    Reply

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