Being a Better Writer: Ambiguous Stories

Today’s topic is going to be a bit of a vague one, I’m afraid. At least initially.

No, that wasn’t a deliberate play on words (okay, maybe a little), but more as a starting admission of my own limited experience with this topic.  Which makes it sound like I’m admitting a lack of knowledge on it. Which isn’t true. It’s just that I (and my posts) tend to have come at this topic with a different approach than what has been asked after for this one.

What am I talking about? Well, the request for this was “Ambiguous characters and plots” IE characters and stories that are “vague” about what’s actually going on. An ambiguous character, for example, is a character where the reader is unsure of their motivations or objectives, or even facts about the character themselves. Likewise, an ambiguous story is one where the reader is unsure about what’s really happening, even as the story is being told, such as a story told by an untrustworthy or unstable narrator being ambiguous because we don’t know for certain if events happened the way that they’ve claimed, or if the narrator is “fictionalizing” their own account.

There can exist a certain bit of charm to these types of stories and characters (which is both why they’re written and why they’ve been asked after as a topic here). A story in which events or even the characters are ambiguous, when written well, can be exciting and teasing at the same time, constantly keeping the reader guessing and striving to put the clues together on their own to separate fact from fiction to discover the real story.

At the same time however, that’s written well. A poorly written ambiguous story or character, by contrast, will confuse and irritate its audience, often to the point that many of them will put the book down and find something else to read.

The trick, then, is being the former and not the latter. But in truth … it’s really hard to be the former. And unfortunately easy to be the latter. Because ambiguity is more than just cutting out certain details so that the audience doesn’t know what’s going on. Sure, you’ll end up with an ambiguous story … but one that’s also a mess of cut content at best, a disaster of confusing elements at the worst. No, crafting an ambiguous story (or an ambiguous character) involves careful cutting and replacing in such a way as to keep things balanced on the edge of a knife.

Take the Ciaphas Cain novels, for example, which I’ve written about before. The Cain novels are excellent examples of an ambiguous story and protagonist. Everything the audience is reading (save some footnotes) is the record of the titular character Cain himself … who openly admits that he’s a coward and self-aggrandizing his few accomplishments that were mostly the work of other, better, people.

Or is he? See, Cain claims this, but both his own comments and those footnotes are somewhat to the contrary. Never fully, but never confirming his initial claims either. Which results in a story where the overall events clearly “happened” as they are recorded, but Cain’s own acts within those parts, as described, are left ambiguous. Was he as heroic as others say? Were his actions entirely self-serving and cowardly, as he claims? Or was it somewhere in the middle? Well, I’d like to be able to give you an answer, but the reason I chose to use this as an example is because the series is so well-balanced that to date the fandom of the series is split around 50-50, half of them believing that Cain is downplaying his own heroism for reasons while the other half believe he’s every bit the lucky coward he claims.

The author has wisely declined to comment one way or the other, to the best of my knowledge.

But that’s an example of a good ambiguous character and plot, because it’s so carefully balanced between the two that it’s possible to come to either conclusion without being able to say that one answer or another is right or wrong.

But Ciaphas Cain does something else that’s worth mentioning in making a good ambiguous story, and that’s laying out the clues that make each element mysterious. Sure, there’s ambiguity in events, and in Cain’s words. But the story also treats these events almost like miniature mysteries for the reader to find the clues to. For example, often Cain will say that one thing happened, only for inconsistencies to appear in his own accounts (sometimes he even notes them and tries to pass off an excuse to the “mistake”). Other times, his text says one thing while his records of another character nearby seem to disagree with what’s he’s claimed have happened. Or the one curating his sequence of events will include an excerpt from someone else’s memoirs which present a few facts differently … you get the idea. But here’s the thing: None of these events claim to be perfectly accurate. All they do is offer clues to what “really” happened, but even then, there are multiple ways  to put these clues together and still arrive at a “conclusion.”

What I’m getting at (and what my initial comments were hinting at with this post) is that in a way, a good ambiguous story or character, as I see it, relies a lot on misdirection of a sort. You have the “narrator” who tries to misdirect the audience by withholding information or even lying outright about certain things. But there are clues there—inconsistencies, other character’s dialogue, etc—that suggest that something other than what was said may be true … but don’t outright confirm it. The result, if done carefully and with no small amount of skill, is a story where the audience has at their disposal tools that not only allow them to identify an ambiguous story, but also work on their own to come closer to the truth … though never actually arriving at it.

This approach, at least in my opinion, is what makes a good ambiguous story good. It’s what draws in the readers and keeps them involved. They know that there’s more that’s not being said, that what they’re being told up front isn’t the whole story, and so they have to pay attention to details to winnow out, if not the truth, as close to the truth as they can.

Will they ever have it? No. But a good ambiguous story will let them come to a conclusion of their own between several. A story about a heist told by the one pulling it off, for example, may declare that they got away scot-free, but have hints that they actually didn’t pull the caper off, or maybe even that it wasn’t about the caper at all, but something else, simply by having contradictory statements from other characters and elements that don’t add up, or at least, add up in a way that points to a different conclusion than what the narrator claims. The reader, therefore, is pulled in by the heist, and then pulled in further by the act of noticing and putting together all these pieces to try and find the “truest” account among the ambiguity.

Right, so these are ambiguous stories. What about characters? Well (and again, a reminder that my style shifts somewhat from this), an ambiguous character is similar and pulls from similar elements, but … I want to say toned down in scope. Rather than a whole story being ambiguous, just the character is. The interactions with other characters may not add up, or their motivations may be left in the dark. And … crud, this one’s going on a future list for “mysterious characters” because these are very hard to do right without taking over your story or making it a mess. So let’s table that under “Mysterious characters: coming to a Being a Better Writer post near you soon!” and move on to the last bit of today’s topic.

Doing it wrong.

Let’s go with the most common mistake I’ve seen in making something ambiguous and doing it poorly: Just cutting details.

Look, on one level this works. When a creator or narrator withholds or cuts information from the audience to be ambiguous, well … it does work. You create ambiguity simply by virtue of not knowing enough to know what’s going on. But this also makes a mess because it’s just cutting content for the sake of “How mysterious!” Which in turn can just confuse and irritate the reader.

For example, let’s look at Ancillary Justice. Yeah, I don’t normally name bad examples on this site (it’s usually a policy not to) but in this case since I’ve reviewed the book on this site and pointed these follies out before … not such a big deal. But anyway, Ancillary tries to create ambiguity in its story by omission of details and information. For example, the gendered language gimmick which it’s known for (and is pretty much all it’s known for). All it does is use the female pronoun in all cases, thus making every character’s gender ambiguous. Except … it doesn’t actually do anything with this information (or rather, lack of it). Characters are simply ambiguous in their declared gender until they aren’t, and that’s all there is to it.

It does this in other ways as well, such as with alien pants. There are moments in the story where clothing is left ambiguous through use of alien words. Again, cutting of content. Except … when you finally are just told what was cut, it was … pants. Yes, pants.

There are two issues here with this kind of approach. The first is that the story is made ambiguous solely through the concealing or hiding of information from the audience. It’s not misdirection or offering multiple takes, it’s literally the author just saying “No, you don’t get to know that right now.” Like a book I read the other day that opened with a betrayal from one of two characters, and then bounced back to flashbacks each time they were about to reveal which of the two it was, doing its hardest to keep the truth of which of the two in the past was the betrayer.

Did it work? Well … kind of. It felt like a rug-pull each time, because the only reason they didn’t tell the reader was to keep it ambiguous. Note that this wasn’t a bad kind of ambiguity, just weak in my opinion, because it was simply ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity. To cut the reader off and withhold knowledge (for the record, I think the story would have been served much better by telling the reader outright which of the two was the betrayer and then using the flashbacks to build up the pain of the betrayal, rather than making both of the characters feel “equally culpable” to the degree that the author could have flipped a coin).

But getting back on topic, the first is just that it’s cutting material for the sake of cutting. The second issue is that the information Ancillary was cutting wasn’t important. It was just generic info that had no bearing on anything. Nothing was ever done to utilize the characters’ genders being left ambiguous (until they weren’t). There was no importance to the alien pants, they were just pants!

The result was that not only did the story end up hiding information from the audience, it was useless information that had no bearing whatsoever on the story. It was fake, false ambiguity that had no bearing on anything.

See, in the good examples above, the ambiguity ties into the story and is important because it can change things. Did the thief get away with the heist or not? Was it even about the theft? Is Cain a coward or a hero? Either answer changes something about the story and book.

Alien pants, on the other hand, are 100% unimportant to the story being told. It’s ambiguity for the sake of ambiguity, without adding anything to the story other than needless confusion on the audience’s end.

Don’t. Do. This. Don’t cut information solely to confuse your readers or make a situation/thing ambiguous just because. Choose targeted ambiguity that misdirects or serves a purpose for the plot. Don’t just cut information because you can, especially when it doesn’t tie into anything. And rather than simply cutting, try instead to misdirect or offer multiple viewpoints.

And … that’s all I have to say on the subject. Ambiguity is tough, but can really make a story stand out among its peers. Just … don’t make the common mistakes. It takes a lot of work to write a good ambiguous story.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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