Last May, the opening scene I edited raised a lot of questions – about the characters, their relationships, their backstory – without answering them right away. Of course, no opening scene can tell you everything at once, but this one put questions out there and then moved on, leaving readers hanging. This led one commentator to ask about ambiguity and what to do about it.
A quick survey of writing about writing shows that most of the advice you get on ambiguity is on how to get rid of it. I’m not so sure this is wise. Ambiguity can often be a powerful storytelling tool.
Understand, I’m not talking about misdirection, where your readers think they know what’s going on but eventually discover that you’ve been misleading them. And I’m not talking about clear plot questions that readers don’t yet know the answer to – “whodunit” is not a matter of ambiguity. I’m talking about the kind of scenes were readers have no idea what the scene means or why it’s in the book, and the writer knows that readers will feel that way.
You often have no choice but to include some ambiguity in your opening scene, especially if you’ve created a complex world or characters with full, interesting histories. The alternative is to try to convey all that background before the story begins—and weigh down your hook with a lot of exposition. It’s usually much better to simply trust that your readers will keep reading even if they don’t understand everything that’s going on.
Last February, we looked at a YA story set in Ghana, in which the narrator’s mother cooked a chicken that the narrator had considered a pet. One comment raised the question of why the mother did this. I pointed out that the rest of the village also seemed to be involved in the meal, which meant that the mother’s motives probably involved a skein of social obligations that western readers wouldn’t understand without a lot of explanation. But getting into the weeds of the mother’s decision at that moment would have drawn attention away from the narrator’s reaction to losing her chicken, which was the emotional core of the scene. The author had little choice but to leave the mother’s motives up in the air for the time being.
In trying to avoid this kind of thing, writers often choose an opening scene that is entirely self-contained and clear. And this can sometimes work. But it often means avoiding what’s most interesting about your world in your opener, since the things that make your world unique are also the things that make it engaging. Besides, you can often draw readers into your story if you leave them wondering just a bit about what’s going on. This is particularly true in science fiction and fantasy, where readers don’t expect to understand everything right away, or in spy thrillers, where readers expect that things won’t make sense until all is revealed.
In fact, it’s often possible to use ambiguity as a source of tension throughout an entire novel, leading readers to want to read through to the end just to understand what’s going on. There’s some risk to this approach, since you are generating tension from how your story is structured rather than the things that are happening to your characters. This kind of meta-tension can remind your readers that they’re reading a book. But if your story is strong enough in other ways, readers are willing to forgive you the manipulation, since they know the payoff will be worth it. (Note: my editor-wife, a voracious reader, disputes this point – she always resents the manipulation. So this technique won’t work for all readers.) Threading together all of the various enigmatic scenes into a coherent whole is one of the things (in addition to characters who are in constant peril for their lives) that drives Dan Brown readers through to the end. (Ruth notes there’s a reason she’s only read one Dan Brown novel.)
“Story of Your Life,” the Ted Chang novella that was the basis for the movie “Arrival,” opens with a woman, Louise, telling her daughter the story of her life. [SPOILERS] The scenes of Louise and her daughter are then interspersed through the narrative of how Louise, a linguist, was recruited to translate the language of aliens who have just arrived on earth. Readers have no idea what the story of her daughter — whom, we learn, dies young of cancer — has to do with unraveling the language of the floating, seven-footed octopus-like creatures. I know I kept waiting for her grief about her daughter to change how she felt about the aliens.
It’s not until the final few scenes that the two threads of the story come together and make sense. The aliens don’t perceive time sequentially – they are aware of everything that happens, all at once. As Louise becomes fluent in their language, she also begins to detach from time, remembering things that have not yet happened. And in the last couple of paragraphs, we learn that one of these things is the life and death of her daughter. What we thought were memories are in fact memories of events that haven’t occurred yet.
The reason this risky approach works is that Chang delivers enough other interesting elements that readers are willing to put up with not knowing the meaning of what they’re reading. Louise is wonderfully sympathetic, and her daughter is a delight. And the description of the situation with the aliens and the fight to penetrate their language makes it clear that readers are in the hands of a gifted storyteller. All of this make them more willing to suspend understanding.
Of course, it’s possible to go overboard with this approach. I’m currently working on a story told primarily from the point of view of a psychologically disturbed teenager, raised by a mother who is literally insane. The daughter is not really aware of her mother’s madness and takes her homelife as normal – hence the psychological disturbance. In the first draft, the author tried to capture the young girl’s skewed consciousness through a series of ambiguous scenes, colored by the girl’s confusion about her life and her mother’s pathology. But these scenes were so ambiguous – it was often hard to tell whether something actually happened or was a hallucination – that the story was impossible to follow. Readers not only didn’t understand what events meant. They didn’t understand what the events were. Readers will not put up with that for very long.
In the end, creating tension with ambiguity is pretty advanced storytelling. To use it effectively, you have to be tuned in to how your writing comes across to your readers. That’s the only way to confuse them just enough to keep them intrigued without driving them away. You also need to give your readers reason to put up with not being able to follow everything that’s going on. But working on your side, you’ve got the human need to make sense of things. That need is one of the reasons we tell stories in the first place.
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About Dave King
Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer’s Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer’s Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.