Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How to be ambiguous

with 3 comments

Kim Novak in Vertigo

Writers are generally advised to avoid ambiguity. Clarity, as E.B. White observes, may not be a substitute for merit in writing, but it’s as close as we can get, so it’s good form for authors to state things as clearly as they can. It’s certainly the best rule to follow if there’s any doubt. Yet this does nothing to explain the fact that many of the works of art that affect us so deeply—from Hamlet to Vertigo to, yes, Mad Men—are founded on ambiguity. As in the case of most masterpieces, these can be dangerous examples for a writer to follow, but they’re also very tempting. Great fiction survives in the imagination because of the constellation of questions it raises in the reader’s mind, and the problem of balancing such uncertainties with a narrative that remains clear from moment to moment is one of the most difficult issues for a writer to face. And it soon becomes obvious, after writing or reading a few examples, that ambiguous language is not the best way to create a larger superimposition of interpretations.

As usual, we can get some useful insights by looking at poetry, the leading edge of language, whose lessons and innovations tend to filter down centuries later into prose. Poetry is often seen as ambiguous or obscure, but when you examine the greatest poems line by line, you find that this is an effect generated by the resonance of highly specific images—nouns, verbs, and concrete adjectives, all intelligible in themselves but mysterious as a whole. Take, for instance, the poem that I.A. Richards has called “the most mysterious poem in English,” Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” Each stanza stands with crystal clarity, and often something more, but the result has been interpreted as everything from a Catholic allegory to a veiled reference to the relationship between Sir John Salusbury and Queen Elizabeth, and as it stands, it’s a puzzle without an answer. A prefatory note spelling it out would have avoided much of this confusion, but in the process, it would have destroyed the magic.

The Phoenix and the Turtle

Which leads us to a very important point, which is that ambiguity is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. It’s often been observed, for instance, that much of the mystery of Shakespeare’s plays emerges from the fact that he omits part of his original source material while leaving other elements intact. In the original Amleth story, there’s no confusion about the reasons for the lead character’s madness: he believes that his uncle is plotting against his life, so in order to protect himself and mislead his enemies, he pretends to be an idiot. Hamlet takes away this detail—Claudius doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing Hamlet at all until after he starts to act like a lunatic—and creates a tantalizing ambiguity in the process. The same is true of King Lear, in which the original source more clearly explains the king’s reasons for putting his three daughters to the test. The resulting plays are filled with concrete language and action, but the mystery remains.

And this is true of many works of art. We never know the origins of Montresor’s murderous vendetta in “The Cask of Amontillado,” but the story itself is so detailed that it practically serves as a manual on how to wall a man up alive, even as Poe denies us the one piece of information that most writers would have included first. (If Poe were alive today, I suspect that his editor would have begged him to flesh out the backstory.) Vertigo is the most mysterious movie ever made, but on watching it again, I’m struck by how much of it is grounded in specifics—the mundane details of Scotty’s life, the beautiful but realistic San Francisco settings, the way his obsession for Madeline manifests itself in trips to salons and department stores. Ambiguity, in other words, is only effective when the story itself is concrete enough to convincingly support multiple interpretations, which, in practice, usually means an even greater attention to clarity and convincing detail than if the line of the narrative were perfectly clear. A map that contains a single path can afford to leave the rest of the territory blank, but if we’re going to find our way down more than one road, we’ll need a better sense of the landscape, even, or especially, if the landmarks lead us astray.

Written by nevalalee

May 22, 2013 at 9:23 am

3 Responses

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  1. Wait, how many types was this in all?


    May 22, 2013 at 10:59 am

  2. Ah, but you cut the White quote early. From Styles of Writing: “Be Obscure Clearly” Absolutely one of my favorites and words I try to live by.

    S.W. May

    May 22, 2013 at 11:04 am

  3. @S.W. May: Agreed—I’ve quoted it before!


    May 22, 2013 at 11:05 am

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