Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Literary Ambiguity

Sharon Wildwind

Hard winter has set in: snow and blowing snow carefully orchestrated to arrive on Saturday and/or Sunday for the past four weekends. Minus thirteen, with wind chills down to minus twenty-one. Events cancelled because the streets and roads were to slippery to be safe. It takes Calgarians a little while to sink into winter. Three weeks from now almost nothing will be cancelled unless the temperature drops to 40 below.

The view from our bedroom window this morning.
The result of all this was a wonderful, unexpected week to snuggle. Shortly after supper most nights, we retired to the bedroom with candles for atmosphere and books for enjoyment, climbed under the duvet, and read.

What was especially satisfying is that we were reading a book chocked full of ambiguity. We kept handing the book back and forth, asking, “Is this what’s really happening?” “Can we trust what she’s telling us?” “What if she’s misread this entire situation and it’s much worse than she thinks?”

Real ambiguity is a good thing. It keeps the reader interested and guessing. It's also darn hard to do well.

Being an author, as soon as we finished and I knew what was real and what wasn’t, I had to take the book apart to see what made it tick.

Because I’d read the book cover, I knew it was set in a paranormal universe in which magic existed (maybe). Note the ambiguity from the very beginning. Does magic really exist in this world or does the narrator only think it exists?

The narrator is a teen-age girl beset not only by hormones, but by (supposedly) ghastly goings on in her family. Does her boyfriend really love her, or has she cast a spell on him so he appears to love her? Is her mother really trying to kill her? Is her mother even alive because we’ve never seen her? We’ve only had the narrator telling us what it would be like if we did see her.

Up to about a third of the way through the book, I happily went along believing that what the point-of-view character said was absolute truth. Then I said, wait a minute, there is not a single character who confirms a thing she says.

Then came the fun part, asking if the narrator was bending the narrative to what she wanted me to believe? That’s when it helped to have a partner. We passed the book between us, asking, “Do you think this part is true? If it’s not true, what do you really think is going on?”

We hit a sense of foreboding at exactly the same place. Two nice characters seemed to be heading swiftly for a “happy every after” ending. It was too easy, too pat. Something had to happen. (Cue impending doom music).

At the end, we looked at each other, laughed, and said, “I never expected that to happen.”

I wish I could write well enough to
  • Have a compelling narrator, but not necessarily an honest one.
  • Make sure other characters fail to see what the narrator sees, or that they interpret it differently.
  • Hold stuff back.
  • Create a sense of impending doom.
  • Have a boffo, unexpected ending.

Maybe one day. Stay warm, everyone.

Quote for the week
To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.
~ Ursula K. LeGuin, American novelist, poet, and essayist, The Left Hand of Darkness


Sheila Connolly said...

It takes both an intelligent writer and an intelligent reader to make this kind of ambiguity work well.

I think the enduring popularity of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl speaks to the same question (and there are readers who love the book and equal numbers who hate it).

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Fantastic photo, Sharon. And sounds like your book fell into the "unreliable narrator" category. There have been some wonderful mysteries that used this device, starting with Agatha Christie, but they're almost impossible to talk about, because the second you say, "This book has an unreliable narrator," you've committed a major spoiler and squashed that sense of ambiguity and dread.

Anonymous said...

Sheila, it takes a brave writer to trust the readers' intelligence well enough to make this work.

Liz, that's why I'm not naming this book. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who might pick it up. But I'm sending out mental waves, with the name and author, because I think it's well worth reading.