Most of the time, ambiguity in our writing is a bad thing. It confuses the scene, makes readers pause to figure out what’s going on, and can even create hysterical sentences that ought to be serious.
But sometimes, a little ambiguity creates uncertainty, and uncertainty can be a strong and powerful hook.
The sitcom Angel From Hell is a great example of ambiguity that works (although sadly, as I’m writing this I discovered CBS just canceled it. But the device it uses still works, even if TV viewers didn’t click with it in this case)
The premise of the show is this: Amy is a guardian angel who enters the life of Allison, a nice gal whose life is currently a mess. Each episode is Amy trying to teach Allison a life lesson to fix her issues and become a better person.
The ambiguous part—Is Amy really a guardian angel or a crazy stalker?
As you watch the show, you want to believe Amy is who she claims. She knows private and personal things, she arranges events and coincidences to work out as she wants, and she does seem to know what Allison needs. We even get to meet another guardian angel and they talk shop.
That other angel looks like a homeless man who’s stalking his own person. And Amy never does anything that can’t be explained by someone with very good stalker skills who’s working hard to make things happen to wriggle her way into Allison’s life. And things don’t always go exactly as planned, even if they do work out. She’s also never done anything clearly magical or divine.
Amy might be an angel, but she might be crazy, too.
Which is why it’s a fun show (despite what those CBS execs think).
The ambiguity of “is she or isn’t she?” makes everything Amy does come into question. We watch more closely, looking for clues to validate whichever opinion we have.
(Here’s more on clarifying ambiguous pronouns)
Making Ambiguity Work in Our Stories
Naturally, we don’t want to throw in a bunch of ambiguous details without purpose, but there are ways we can use this to create delicious uncertainty in our own novels.
1. Less is More When it Comes to Ambiguity
The show has basically one major question—is Amy a guardian angel? There are associated questions (more on that next), but wondering that one thing is what drives the hook. If we believe it, there are no other questions really. But there’s just enough left ambiguous to never be sure either way.
We can add ambiguity to our stories, as long as we’re wary of making too many things ambiguous. There’s a fine line between uncertainty and confusion.
(Here’s more on making misleading assumptions)
2. Questions Lead to More Questions—But in a Good Way
Amy’s angelness leads to other great questions that support it, rather than distract from it. If she’s not an angel, then how is she doing what she’s doing? That makes the non-believers watch for clues to disprove her angelness, and focus more closely on what’s happening.
When we add ambiguity to our stories, make sure we also provide the right story questions to keep readers focused on learning the truth. It’s a relay setup, not a scattergun approach. Questions lead to clues, which lead to more questions that support the original question.
(Here’s more on plotting with yes or no questions)
3. The Answer Matters a Lot
Amy seems like a sweet (if wacky) person, and I care if she’s legit or not. Her intentions seem good, and even if she’s not who she claims, she’s clearly good for Allison. But if I didn’t care (and obviously not enough Nielsen families did), the ambiguity hook wouldn’t work.
If we pose a big question, we need to make sure our readers will care about the answer and be willing to wait for it. The payoff should be high, and the truth should strongly affect how they see the entire story.
4. Knowing the Answer Can Kill the Hook
Part of the fun of the show is wondering if Amy’s real or not. I’m not sure how much fun it would be if Amy’s status was clear, though I think in this case, knowing she wasn’t real would actually be more interesting. I’d wonder how on earth she was doing all the stuff she does—and why.
If our ambiguous question would spoil the fun of the novel, make sure we leave enough clues to support the other answer. Look closely at every scene that suggests which way things would fall and balance that with equal scenes to suggest the opposite.
Ambiguity can work in the right story, but it’s a thin edge to balance on, so be careful how you handle it. Walk that line between options and keep readers guessing at every turn of the page.
Are there any intentionally ambiguous things in your current WIP? Do you have any other examples to share?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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