Open Ended Short Stories: Without Closure or Climax & Ambiguous Endings

These stories leave something in the ending to the imagination. In some, like “The Lady, or the Tiger”, the missing part is a major plot-point. The story feels unfinished. I’ve marked the stories most like this with an *. I haven’t come across a lot of this type.

In other stories, the author strongly implies the broad strokes of the resolution, but the details aren’t laid out, or there’s room for interpretation or doubt. Let’s start with one of the best known short stories of this type, and possibly the story that brought you to this page. If you haven’t read this one yet, you’ll get to experience a classic for the first time. Enjoy!

Open Ended Stories

“The Lady, or the Tiger?” by Frank Stockton

A long time ago, a barbaric king had a peculiar method of putting criminals on trial. They’re placed in an arena and the public is allowed to attend the proceedings. The accused is brought out before the king. Opposite him are two doors. Behind one is a beautiful woman; behind the other, a hungry tiger. The accuser must choose.

This is the first story in the preview of The Lady, or the Tiger? and Other Stories(Select Paperback preview first, then Kindle)

“The Discourager of Hesitancy” by Frank Stockton

A year after the events of “The Lady, or the Tiger”, a delegation from a far country arrives at the palace. They’ve heard the story, but not the resolution. Before answering, the high officer relates another story that happened shortly after. A Prince from another land arrived, asking the King for permission to marry one of the beautiful ladies of the court. The King granted the request, but not in the way the Prince was hoping.

Read “The Discourager of Hesitancy”

“The Whole Town’s Sleeping” by Ray Bradbury

Lavinia and Francine are walking to Helen’s on a summer evening. They’re all going to see a movie. They cut through the ravine, even though Francine is worried about The Lonely One, a serial killer who’s been targeting local women. They come upon the body of a recently missing woman. Francine is distraught, but Lavinia convinces her to keep going.

The Whole Town’s Sleeping” is the first story in the Amazon preview of Bradbury Stories.

“The Love of a Good Woman” by Alice Munro

A museum in Walley has a box of optometrist’s instruments that were owned by D. M. Willens, who drowned in the Peregrine River decades ago. It was found by an anonymous donor. Three boys who were out exploring on a spring morning first spotted the car and the body submerged in the river. In another thread, Enid is providing homecare for Mrs. Quinn, a young woman dying of kidney failure.

This longer story can be read in the preview of Family Furnishings: Selected Stories(13% into Kindle preview)

*“Fermi and Frost” by Frederik Pohl

Timothy is a nine-year-old boy at JFK airport. He’s been separated from his parents and he’s filthy. The terminal is packed with refugees looking for a flight. A nuclear sub has fired on another sub. Everyone knows the missiles will soon be launched at the landmasses. Meanwhile, Harry Malibert, who was on his way to a seminar at the British Interplanetary Society, ends up tending to Timothy in the confusion.

This story can be read in the preview of the anthology Armageddons(29% into preview)

“Life Sentence” by Matthew Baker

A man, Washington, is brought home by the police to his wife, son and daughter. He doesn’t remember them. He’s still a bit groggy from the procedure. His wife has prepared his favorite meal, but he doesn’t remember that either. He wants to know what he did, but his wife doesn’t want to talk about it. The next day, he gets his first visit from his reintroduction supervisor, who will help him adjust to the change.

This story can be read in the preview of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020(38% in)

*“Bug Eater” by Nathan M. Beauchamp

The tribe’s men haven’t returned after three days and everyone knows there won’t be any food. Angi has been breeding generations of beetles, looking for a sustainable food source. She’s getting closer, but no one appreciates her work. They’re going to have to draw lots. Grandfather urges her to leave while she can.

This story can be read in the preview of OCEANS: The Anthology(16% in)

*“Unreasonable Doubt” by Stanley Ellin

Mr. Willoughby is on vacation to calm his nerves and relax, on the advice of his doctor. While resting on a train, he overhears an experienced lawyer telling a story about the most interesting case he ever had. Hosea Snow, the richest man in town, was found murdered; one of his nephews, Ben, was arrested for the crime.

This story can be read in the preview of Mark Twain’s Medieval Romance(22% in) This anthology was originally called Uncertain Endings, and contains many stories where questions are left unanswered.

“A Dilemma” by S. Weir Mitchell

A man is called to the deathbed of his Uncle Philip. His uncle hated his mother, so this is the first time they have met. Uncle Philip has made a lot of money, and owns a valuable gem collection. Uncle Philip wants to end the family grudge and be remembered fondly. He will leave his collection of precious stones to his nephew. Uncle Philip warns him to be sure he reads the accompanying letter before anything else.

This story can also be read in the above preview of Mark Twain’s Medieval Romance(50% in)

“Nunc Dimittis” by Roald Dahl

The narrator, Lionel, writes the story of his outrageous behavior toward a friend of his, Janet. He’s ashamed and embarrassed by how things went. The trouble started when he escorted Gladys home one evening. She roped him into staying a while and told him a secret. She also told him that Janet had said something about him.

Some of this story can also be read in the above preview of Mark Twain’s Medieval Romance(70% in)

“Steady Customer” by Bernard Malamud

The waitresses at Mr. Mollendorf’s diner are crying. A fellow waitress, Eileen, died during a gallbladder operation. She was only twenty-eight. They try to continue with their work, but no one wants to take over Eileen’s tables. The waitresses realize that Eileen’s steady customer is going to come in and someone is going to have to tell him.

This story can be read in the preview of The Complete Stories(63% in)

“Calved” by Sam J. Miller

A father sees his son, Thede, after being away on a job for three months. Thede has changed; he’s a teenager so he’s grown some, but more importantly his demeanor is different. His eyes are flat and joyless. They have trouble connecting. Thede’s mother says he’s having some trouble at school with bullies. The dad has a sentimental gift for Thede that he hopes will turn the tide.

This story can be read in the preview of The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 1(32% in)

*“All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” by Stephen King

Alfie, a salesman, pulls into a Motel 6 for the evening. He takes his notebook with him but leaves his samples in the car. He won’t need them tonight, or ever. On his way in, he sees the lights of a farmhouse in the distance and thinks about the family inside. He settles into his room, opens his briefcase, takes out the gun, and puts it at the head of the bed. He reads through some of the entries in his notebook that he’s been compiling for the last seven years. He gets ready to end everything, but is a bit concerned about the impression the notebook might give.

“L. T.’s Theory of Pets” by Stephen King

L. T. likes to tell the story of how his wife left him, but he doesn’t like talking about how she’s likely dead now, a victim of the Axe Man. Arriving home from work one day he found the garage door open and her car gone. Inside, there’s a note from her on the fridge telling him she’s left him and detailing her reasons. L. T. believes a lot of their problems came from their two pets—a dog she bought for him and a cat he bought for her. She says she’s going to her mother’s but she never arrives.

“The Blind Spot” by Barry Perowne

Annixter, a playwright, has been drinking for a while, to get over a disappointment with a woman. He meets a man in a similar situation at the Casa Havana. Annixter tells the man his idea for an ingenious locked-room mystery, inspired by his heartbreak. It’s the best idea he’s ever had. After leaving the club, Annixter steps obliviously into the street and is hit by a taxi. His injuries aren’t serious, but there is a problem—he’s forgotten the ending to his play. He goes back to the Casa Havana to find his drinking companion.

“The Wives of the Dead” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The narrator relates a story that generated some interest about a hundred years ago in the Bay Province. Two women, married to two brothers, received the news that their husbands had been killed on consecutive days. Many guests came to offer condolences, and in their shared grief, they comforted each other.

Read “The Wives of the Dead”