Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Using Ambiguity - The Difference Between Tension and Mistrust

I had a somewhat humbling experience recently. I critiqued an amazing
story for a fabulous writer with loads more talent than me. (That
wasn't the humbling part. I'm used to that, ha!).

One of the notes I gave in the critique centered around some ambiguity
in the motivations of a supporting character. Even as the story
finished, I was never quite sure whether this character was good or

"I don't want the reader to know for sure whether he's good or not,"
the author later said.

"The problem isn't the ambiguity itself," said I. "The problem is that
I can't tell whether you're doing it on purpose."

And that's where I got served a big ol' slice of humble pie, because
it was as if my words echoed back at me across a year or two.

You see, one of the main characters in my first book is similiarly
ambiguous. And a few years back a very knowledgeable agent took the
time to read my full manuscript. Her generous rejection letter
included extensive notes about that character.

She told me I needed to be clear with my intention for him. That if I
didn't show the reader the ambiguity was purposeful, I would lose the
reader's trust.

I thought she just didn't get what was I was trying to do. When, in
fact, I didn't realize just what golden advice I was receiving.

Now I know what she meant: You can have all the ambiguity you want.
You can write reversals and twists to your hearts content. BUT, in
every instance where we're waiting to find out what to make of a
character, make sure the reader knows you kept it uncertain on
purpose. Because if they aren't sure, the story becomes at best
frustrating, and at worst, downright unreadable.

Here's the litmus test:
GOOD: The reader is saying things like "What is up with that guy?" Or
"I have a bad feeling about this."

BAD: The reader is saying "I just wasn't sure what to make of that
guy," or, "I kept waiting to see what he would do, but it was just

Why? Because you want the reader's mind consumed with questions about
the story - not questions about whether they've correctly understood
the story. The former keeps them turning pages. The latter has them
going back to reread - if they have the patience.

So how do you make sure the reader knows the ambiguity is intentional?

One approach is to have other POV characters recognize the same
disquiet as the reader. If another character observes tension
regarding the ambiguous character's trustworthiness, then the reader
knows they're on the right track.

A little trickier, but perhaps more effective, would be the use of
body language in the ambiguous character. It takes real skill to imply
a character is hiding something, but if you can pull it off your
reader will be riveted, waiting for the big reveal.

Regardless of how you do it, the important thing is to make sure your
reader is drawn deeper into the story by what you're doing, rather
than being thrown out of it to figure out what they think is going on.

If they don't trust YOU to tell them the truth, they'll be measuring
your motives, rather than flipping pages to figure out your

Your Turn: I know there are more ways to skin this cat. So tell me
about a book you've read where the author used ambiguity to great
effect. Can you identify what techniques they used to show you there
was more to come?


  1. The reader must trust the writer but not neccesarily trust the character?

  2. Patsy - Yes, within reason. A POV character that is dishonest is called an unreliable narrator. You can read an explanation here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unreliable_narrator

    Now, obviously an unreliable narrator has to written very skillfully to truly work. I suspect a poorly written one would undermine a reader's trust just as surely as a poorly written ambiguous character. But if the reader rightfully trusts the author, the author can write unreliable characters and the reader will go for the ride.

    If the reader loses trust in the author, they are no longer engaged in the story because they don't think they can follow - or they fear following will take them unsatisfactory places, like a Zeus ex machina: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deus_ex_machina

    1. That's a DEUS ex machina. (Stupid auto-correct!)

  3. Well, a good way to deal with this is to not use 1st person. I -hate- reading something in 1st person where the character is not honest with the audience. It's just lying by the author so that you don't know what's coming. It's easier to manage this kind of thing if you write in 3rd person.

  4. You've hit the nail on the head with this post. I think Snape is a good example of a character that was skillfully ambiguous.

    I have a secondary character in my MS that I need to make more purposefully ambiguous because some of my beta readers indicated they weren't sure whether the inconsistencies were on purpose or not. This post has given me some good ideas about how I can address that, so thank you! :-)