On doing ambiguity well and badly

by look i have opinions

“[A]ll too often, ambiguity in fiction is not the writer’s attempt to leave space for the reader—it’s the result of the writer’s own indecision. Sometimes one of my students will bring a story to workshop that leaves the others scratching their heads. Did the woman and man get back together, or not? Was the cat that showed up at the end the same as the cat at the beginning? ‘I didn’t want to explain too much,’ the student will often say in the story’s defense. ‘I wanted it to be ambiguous.’

“When asked, these students generally admit that they don’t know, themselves, whether the couple gets back together, or what the deal with the cat is. So they hedge their bets, refusing to give enough evidence one way or another, crossing their fingers that the reader will figure it out and decide for them. Usually, that uncertainty carries over into the story. The reader senses that crucial pieces are missing and ends up confused.”

—Celeste Ng in this essay

I wanted to quote this whole piece. It’s both interesting and frustrating. Like me, Ng is excited about Brad Leithauser’s box and keyhole theory, but whereas I’m more interested in playing with the two models, she’s more interested in applying the keyhole model critically.

The students Ng describes are treating their fiction like a box of toys they can arrange and rearrange at their godlike whim. If the box model is a valid one for writers to use (and I think it is), why doesn’t this approach work?

As someone who has been one of those students in the past, and probably will be again, I’m tempted to say the problem is with the readers. That’s not really right, though. I think the problem is the writers’ inattention to their audience.

Fiction written with the box model in mind should not be arbitrary. It should be like a magic trick. The audience knows it’s a trick; they’re even familiar with the materials being used (hat, coin, handkerchief). But they’re willing to believe that something strange and marvelous is going on, that a quarter can pass through cloth and hide in a child’s ear. The arbitrary manipulations of the trick aren’t just there for their own sake, they exist to create a “magic” whose logic is dreamlike in its persuasiveness.