Classic Being a Better Writer: Ambiguous Stories

Welcome once again, writers! It’s Monday here on Unusual Things, and that means that once again, we’re delving into the world of writing with Being a Better Writer.

Classic edition today, looking back at prior posts that have tickled the noodles of thousands of writers young and old. Because I, you see, am not currently in my office. I’m somewhere out on the ocean, hopefully in a ship as opposed to a life raft, braving the wilds of Alaska. And since I was running short on time before my departure, I elected to make some of the posts that went up while I was away classic posts.

One of the reasons I ran short of time, by the way, was because I needed to complete my entry for Dog Save the King, which as of this posting will close in just a few short days. You can check out more info about that here, but there’s still time to send in your entry!

Now, on to today’s topic. Ambiguity is one of those subjects in writing that, sadly but fittingly, remains ambiguous for many. Hence why about five years back, one of our reader requested topics was on the subject of how to write an ambiguous story or plot. And Being a Better Writer delivered. Take a look at the brief excerpt, and then read the rest of the post by following the link! Happy Monday, folks!

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.

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