View Full Version : Advice for and not for Ambiguity.

January 30th, 2018, 04:13 AM
The difference between ambiguity and confusion can be puzzling to beginning writers. Ambiguity is the controlled and deliberate presentation of a limited number of possible interpretations. For example, the central concern of fiction by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Henry James is an unfathomable mystery. In James’s Turn of the Screw, the central question is whether the governess can be trusted? Does she see real ghosts? Is she lying for some reason? Are the children plotting against her? Is she completely mad? Anyone answer would be an oversimplification. And that is the point. James leaves it ambiguous because ambiguity is what a story is about. In the Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne is ambiguous about which character is truly immoral. Again ambiguity is the point.

Confusion on the other hand is a lack of control that results when you omit or leave blurry certain information your readers need to know. Sometimes writers get defensive about what they left out. Every time a reader says “This is unclear. I couldn’t figure out what was going on in this scene. Were they in a house or in the field? How old were these characters? Was that a man or a woman? What did happen in the end?” The writer says, “ Yeah, that is the way I meant it. To be subtle. You know. I didn’t want to make everything obvious.” It is as if the writer wants to make up for his own vagueness or lack of energy. Be crisply definitive.John Updike's encyclopedic precision suggests more profound mysteries. Significant ambiguities rise from not withholding information but from being richly informative.
This was from a Christmas present I got.
Taken from making shapely fiction. Pages 84 85, written by Jerome Stern. Good advice for beginning writers and maybe says a lot about how Henry James wrote.

Do you agree with this? Fiction is mystery based on ambiguity, you must write plots for readers asking creating concern and trouble for characters by building on ambiguity. I liked this advice so much, I decided to share this. I was at the mall, and had nothing to do and started reading this book. You can build plots, by imagining in this way, what is so ambiguous about the mystery. Supposedly lots of stories are mysteries if not all. That said I detest craft books but wanted to share this article that was a good read since it's making me think differently about how to build a plot as I write.

(I don't buy into the arguments of many craft books but this sounds intriguing advice for writers). Any opinions are welcome though this helped me think for myself what about writing can turn into a plot (hopefully it is useful). Thanks for commenting or reading. Wanted to share.

January 30th, 2018, 12:42 PM
Ambiguity is essential in writing, because in everyday life many situations are ambiguous! If we entered every situation in knowledge of the full facts, we'd be immune from all the bad things that life throws at us (or at least be better prepared). Equally, we'd probably avoid many situations that turn out to be positive too.

When writing, the author is (or at least should be) aware of all the facts, but the characters will not be, as per normal life. As such, ambiguity is essential to maintain a degree of control.

Where confusion exists, it is often because the writer has made an assumption of understanding, based upon their in-depth knowledge of the plot, characters, scenarios, etc..

I think ambiguity is essential in any plot. Keeping to that track and not straying into confusion is a skill writers need to have in their toolkit.

January 30th, 2018, 02:24 PM
This is an important distinction and I like that it was very clearly written. I have often found myself when writing asking 'how can I make this more clear without subtracting from the reader?" I think that is excellent advice for anyone that finds themselves struggling with the same question. Thank you for sharing this.

January 31st, 2018, 12:45 PM
I like the advice. I'm trying to think of something to add, but I feel like I'm either wandering into a whole different topic completely or just restating what was already said quite clearly, so I guess I'll leave it simple. I like the advice.

March 4th, 2018, 12:30 AM
Such a concise distinction between confusion and ambiguity, bravo! I agree with Pete_C in that life is ambiguous and nothing is ever rolled into a nice little ball with every loose end tied up. Most mass consumers of modern day literature have become programmed to expect a tidy ending thus leaving little room for individual imagination.