A to Z CHALLENGE – On Writing – A is for Ambiguity

I have taken up the blogging from a-z challenge and every day in April, I will be posting a few thoughts on writing. So let’s get started….

April 1st 2013

A is for Ambiguity.

For me, one of the most important elements of good writing is ambiguity, where the writer allows the reader make up his or her own mind about the motives, desires and actions of characters, and the significance of situations and events within the narrative.

Good writing should have space to stretch and breathe, and ambiguity is a wonderful apparatus to oxygenate a story. Ambiguity swirls and weaves between and within words, thoughts and ideas, inviting the reader to explore, re-examine and interpret an array of possibilities and interpretations.

The wonderful thing about ambiguity is that meanings can shift and change along with the shifts and changes of the reader’s own life, and when the work is re-visited, new and perhaps completely different interpretations materialise. And so the writing remains forever fresh and alive.

I love ambiguity in all art forms, from painting and photography to music, songwriting and film. Indeed, one of the most enigmatic and polysemic works of art, Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez plays a central role in my new novel, Painting by Numbers. And if you want to see ambiguity in all it;s expansive beauty, check out the works of writers such as Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and James Salter, the novels and stories of Haruki Murakami, Alasdair Gray, Janice Galloway…the list of greats could go on and on.

So ambiguity can be a highly effective means of drawing the reader into your narrative. It can help to reduce unnecessary and overly long descriptions and explanations, and stops you committing the cardinal sin  of telling rather than showing. But be careful. Ambiguity also comes with a health warning. Ambiguity can so easily tumble into obscurity and meaninglessness. Mis-use can leave the reader confused, befuddled and frustrated,  and ultimately completely lost and pissed off, unwilling to persevere through the thickening fog. But for me, ambiguity is worth the effort and the risk, and in the end it’s always worth walking the high wire without a safety net.

PEOPLE’S BOOK PRIZE FINALIST – PAINTING BY NUMBERS – a dark, surreal thriller is available in digital and printed formats from Amazon UK/Amazon US and all good online stores. VOTE For PAINTING BY NUMBERS TO WIN 21st -29th May 2013

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15 Responses to A to Z CHALLENGE – On Writing – A is for Ambiguity

  1. Say what you mean… and mean what you say… is maybe not quite what you’re proposing? Words are the essence, though, and how you use them the challenge. Happy A-Z ing!

  2. Yes, the fine line between ambiguity and total obscurity. Easy in my work – do you believe this is possible or not? That’s about as ambiguous as I get but then I’m not clever like you, Tom!

  3. Larry Kollar says:

    Ambiguity works really well for short stories – if the writer does the job, the reader is drawn on to imagine what might become of the characters after the story ends.

  4. Hello.

    I like what you said about how “meanings can shift and change along with the shifts and changes of the reader’s own life, and when the work is re-visited, new and perhaps completely different interpretations materialise.” It is quite refreshing to see things from a different perspective after some time away.

    You’re my first official hopped blog. I wrote for a few hours when Camp NaNo started, took a long 90min blink, and have been up since. The day’s probably not going to end well, but I had interesting output during a previous sleep deprived haze.

    Based on your theme, I wanted to paste a jpeg for you but decided it might be too cluttered. Another time, perhaps.

    Good luck with your writing this month,

    Tonette dela Luna
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Blog: Textploits of the Writerly Persuasion – http://tonettedelaluna.wordpress.com/
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/TonettedelaLuna
    FB: https://www.facebook.com/TonettedelaLuna

  5. Pamela Kelt says:

    Beautifully done. A has never been to so subtle. I was struggling in a viva once, and they hinted at ambiguity. I said the question was ambiguous. Didn’t quite get away with it, but hey. Worth a try. Passed.

    Love the Velasquez. Thought I understood the shadowy figure nuances until my daughter told me what it really wasn’t about. History of Art, Edinburgh. Jealous? No, no, no.

    Looking forward to B.

  6. Helen Howell says:

    Nice post Tom – Good luck with the rest of A-Z I’ll be reading. ^_^

  7. Well you nailed ambiguity firmly on the head in Painting by Numbers that’s for sure.

    My ‘Lizzy’ is a child that wants to be known and understood, but I have been thinking about how to put some ambiguit/mystery into her story. By a circumstance that she doesn’t fully understand, but as she describes it the adult reader knows exactly what’s going on .
    Did you read ‘A’? I tried to do that a bit with her description of her parents.
    I’m a world away from PBN… but I’ve started 🙂

    • Tom Gillespie says:

      Thanks Annmarie Just keep working at it … PBN is far from perfect.. It takes courage, stamina and sheer bloody mindedness to even attempt to get the balance right and you haave to be prepared to fall off yer bike more often than you would like (and before the knees have even scabbed over)

  8. Funny thing about ambiguity (all right, funny to me)… I used to belong to this critique group, and more often then not when it was my story’s term someone would start by saying, “I wasn’t sure what this one was about, really…” and then proceed to summarise what they had gathered. Despite their professed confusion, they would paraphrase everything exactly as I had intended to communicate, and I tell them they got the story just fine. “Oh,” they’d say. “I wasn’t sure…”

    I’m with you — I like to know where I am as a reader, but have enough room to move around myself. But perhaps it is a story trait not universally admired…

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