1. Kessie says:

    I think there’s a time to leave things a bit ambiguous so the reader can form their own opinions. But leaving things too ambiguous is bad, too.
    The Watcher in the Woods has the most ambiguous ending I’ve ever read. My sister and I read it and then sat and guessed as to what actually happened. Who went through the teleporter, again? And what happened? It’s not explained.
    Recently I read a Christian spec fic book where the ending was zipped up tightly, but it didn’t fit the rest of the story. Sure, there was redemption and the bad guys got punished. But the portrayal of God was so clear-cut that it left me with a bad taste in my mouth about my devotions for days. If God was like THAT, then I didn’t want to talk to Him. Because God broke His own rules. (Fortunately after a day I was able to separate the fictional God from the real person.) No, I’m not telling you what book it was.
    I think when it comes to writing religious things, there needs to be some ambiguity. Not everybody believes exactly the same thing I do. I need to leave some wiggle room for people to draw their own conclusions. I want Mormons and Muslims and Pentecostals to enjoy my book, without being beaten over the head with my particular belief system. Because I’m still working out my theology. What I write now may not be consistent with what I know from experience in ten years.
    Heck, I want to be able to read my own book later and not want to hit my past self in the face with a brick.

    • Bainespal says:

      Recently I read a Christian spec fic book where the ending was zipped up tightly, but it didn’t fit the rest of the story. Sure, there was redemption and the bad guys got punished. But the portrayal of God was so clear-cut that it left me with a bad taste in my mouth about my devotions for days. If God was like THAT, then I didn’t want to talk to Him. Because God broke His own rules.

      I’ve had a very similar experience. I was angry that the bad guys in the book essentially got pulled bodily into hell at the climax. I know we believe in hell and judgment. I know we need to be realistically “gritty” at times. But the problem was that the story built up a great deal of sympathy for said character(s) and even developed a theme of forgiveness and mercy. There was an implication that the Good Guys needed to be willing to forgive, and it seemed to me like the story was deliberately showing the Hero to be refusing God’s call to forgiveness. I was not necessarily expecting the Bad Guy(s) to be redeemed and to live happily ever after, but I thought the story would at least live up to the sympathetic portrayal, that the theme of forgiveness would not simply be dismissed so callously in the end.
      The way this unnamed story did end still could have worked. The Hero should have hated himself after the events of the climax. He should have thought, That could have been me, and that thought would have been very appropriate. (To say why that thought would have been appropriate may be specific enough that the book might be identifiable.) After the Hero witnessed the horror of ultimate judgment, then there could be catharsis and true healing at the end, even though tears would still mist our eyes. But that didn’t happen. The Hero suffered nothing for the fact that he never seemed very willing to forgive if the Bad Guy(s) had repented. The ending was too good, too happy. The Bad Guy(s) go to hell, and the Good Guys get all the toys. The end.

      • Kessie says:

        Oh wow. It’s endings like that that make you wonder what the author was driving at in the first place. Forgive everybody but bad people who deserve to go to hell?
        The conclusions I was forced to draw about the book I read was that marriage indeed lasts beyond the grave, and if your spouse dies, you should die too and go be with them rather than pursuing another relationship here on Earth. It was a little too Somewhere in Time for me. And the world’s God thought this was permissible?

    • I think there’s a time to leave things a bit ambiguous so the reader can form their own opinions. But leaving things too ambiguous is bad, too.

      How ambiguous of you, Kessie. 😉

      As far as leaving religious things ambiguous, I suppose that depends on a writer’s purpose for writing. If I want to show God at work in the world, I don’t want to leave the truth about Him open to interpretation so that a Muslim would nod and agree just as much as an Evangelical Christian. One operates on law and the other on grace, so if my story is so ambiguous that both seem like tenable positions, I think I failed to say what I wanted to say.

      Isn’t some of what makes a story provocative the very fact that it presents a controversial position? Think DaVinci Code.

      But you make a critical point–how ambiguous is too ambiguous?


  2. Literaturelady says:

    Now I’m going to kept awake nights pondering the answer to “The Lady or the Tiger?”  🙂
    Great questions, Becky.  After a little pondering, here are my thoughts:
    At least one message is too important to be ambiguous.  If a story’s purpose is evangelistic, then the story and the Gospel should be written clearly.  With that in mind, a story shows, not tells; and since novels are 20+ chapters, an author has plenty of time in which to show a life without Christ, a man’s need for salvation, a changed life, and so on.
    Beyond that, I think the choice up to an author; although if he chooses ambiguity, he risks readers completely misunderstanding his point.  🙂
    Maybe you didn’t mean to imply this, but it really sounded like you equated clarity with low artistic quality.  (Let me know if I’m wrong!)  I would say that overtness is poor quality–using your writing to shine neon signs towards your theme.  But one mark of a great writer is clarity without overtness.  As I said above, a story’s very purpose is to show, not tell.  I feel strongly about this because I recently read a Christian fiction novel that was better than I thought it would be, but in some places, the theme was obvious.  That’s always irritating.
    This was a great post!  Or is, rather.  🙂

    • LL, thanks for the comment. I have my own way of answering “The Lady or the Tiger” if you’re interested. 😉

      I probably used the word clarity, but I meant by that, not the opposite of confusion but the opposite of murky.

      I definitely don’t think stories should be confusing. I read one by a noted author that had two POV characters. One told the story from beginning to end, and the other, from end to beginning. Talk about confusing! I spent most of the book trying to figure out which end was up because there were no context clues to let the reader know that the two characters were not on the same time frame. Artsy, I suppose, but I won’t read anything by that author again.

      I do think the author opting for some ambiguity risks being misinterpreted. But I  keep thinking about Gone with the Wind or “The Lady or the Tiger?” There was no ambiguity in the story, just in the end. Gone with the Wind kept me up at nights and I ended up reading it twice more. That story haunted me and it was because of the end. “The Lady or the Tiger?” irritated me the first time I read it, but I came back to it and taught it to my high schoolers. Something about the ambiguity pushes readers to make a decision. A zipped up ending doesn’t really demand that, I don’t think.


      • Literaturelady says:

        It was this remark that confused me: “…or by weaving in some ambiguity, does a writer, besides creating a more artistic work…”   as though a little ambiguity was required for quality.  Although I see what you mean about ambiguity forcing a reader to make a decision.  That makes sense.
        And speaking of ambiguous endings, I would love to hear your answer to “The Lady or the Tiger?”  My own theory, given the jealousy of the princess and her enjoyment of those games, is that the tiger was behind the right-hand door.  Ugh.
        Thanks for answering my comment!  Sorry about being a week late in answering yours.  <guilty smile>

  3. Jill Stengl says:

    One major difficulty an author encounters when deciding on clarity vs. ambiguity is the vast differences in the comprehension levels of readers. A theme that is obvious to one reader can go right over another reader’s head. A salvation message that is “crystal clear” to one reader can lead another into confusion. A symbolic figure can irritate one reader because it is too obvious in meaning while another might not recognize it at all. An author will never please everyone–

    Some readers enjoy the Narnia Chronicles without ever seeing the allegory, while others feel beaten over the head by its message (Tolkein despised Narnia because its message was too overt!). Still others, like me as a child, learn to see Jesus Christ in a whole new light that makes all the difference.

    In my opinion, the Holy Spirit can use any level of ambiguity or clarity to touch the life of a reader. More important is that the symbols, the message, the allegory, or the overt story line all be in line with the Truth of God’s Word.

    But even this is open to interpretation. I have more than once been concerned to see symbols–such as swords, blood, sacrifice, etc–used in speculative fiction books in disturbing ways that contradict the gospel message; sometimes, sad to say, I have seen this in books on the shelves of Christian bookstores (example: Hannah Hurnard’s later publications). Other readers recongize no problem with them.

    On the other hand, sometimes readers get hung up on unimportant details and fail to understand the purpose of allegory.  For example, Aslan’s death for Edmund is too exclusive. Why would he die for Edmund only? And Aslan’s resurrection in one day, not three.

    Just a few thoughts–I could ramble on forever on this subject. 😀   

    • Jill, there’s no getting around the truth of your comment. Readers do bring their own abilities, experience, understanding to the table.

      That used to disturb me. I don’t like being misunderstood, and to write with a measure of ambiguity seems like it’s an invitation to being misunderstood. But the truth is, God was ambiguous (in His self revelation through what He created) and absolutely clear (in the Incarnation of His Son) and people miss both, so I don’t think we can improve on that in our sub-creation efforts.

      In the end, which ever way God directs a writer, He will use our work as He sees fit. It may surprise us to learn the ways we hadn’t expected 😉


  4. Fred Warren says:

    I think it’s a “both-and” rather than an “either-or.” Some readers will be frustrated by ambiguity, others will gain more illumination from a story that makes them question their assumptions and think a little more. Jill’s right about differing comprehension levels, but I think it goes beyond that into the mechanics of how we think and solve problems. People are wired differently–the beauty of a subtle approach may be lost on someone with a very linear way of thinking. Neither is inferior, but they’re very different windows on the world, and we need literature that serves both perspectives.

    As literaturelady observed, much depends on the writer’s intent. If they’re trying to write an evangelistic story, ambiguity isn’t going to help much. If they’re exploring human nature, relationships, or ethical dilemmas, ambiguity can impel readers to look more deeply and move beyond simplistic answers to difficult problems.

    • Great observations, Fred. Yes, we have differing ways of processing information, and I suspect that’s why some people don’t care for stories that rely heavily on symbolism–their minds aren’t wired to think naturally in those terms.

      And yes, writer’s intent will dictate in part whether he presents his story with ambiguity or not.

      Good discussion.


    • Jill Stengl says:

      Great points, Fred. You’re so right–it isn’t just comprehension level, it’s also the way different people think! There isn’t really a “right way” and a “wrong way” when it comes to clarity and ambiguity–both can be used by God for communicating Truth. 

  5. I agree with Fred, and much of the other experiences shared here. Every author (and reader) is unique, and God seems to have unique stories to tell through each of us, so I don’t feel like one way or the other is “The Right Way, Period”.
    That said, the stories that left me thinking the longest were the ones that didn’t zip up every detail. Usually they answered the biggest question (“will the hero survive?”) but then left several other significant drivers unresolved (the villain escaped, or a character you loved dies, or a big emotional struggle of the hero isn’t resolved by the ending events).
    When it comes to clarity vs. ambiguity, even the Bible doesn’t resolve everything. If it did, we wouldn’t have so many different denominations, each with their own interpretation of certain significant questions. “Do we get to choose our own way, or has God already decided our fates?” “How involved is the Holy Spirit in our lives today?” “Does God care which job I choose?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “Is it possible to lose my salvation?”
    These are BIG questions, and yet all Christians don’t agree on the answers. God left us some ambiguity. Or, as I like to think of it, He designed it so that we won’t know the truth unless we are in active communication with Him, allowing Him to “lead us into all truth”. That way, people can’t just read the book and have all the answers without ever actually knowing Him.
    This approach appeals to me. I want my stories to be engaging tales that grab a reader’s attention, and to have enough of Him in the story that He can speak to the heart of the reader as He likes. Like the parables of Jesus — those who have ears to hear, those the Spirit is whispering to, will hear Him… but the others will just see a good story.

  6. Teddi, I think as you do–the stories that stay with me are the ones I’m still trying to figure out, at least in part, days after I’ve finished. I don’t want to be confused, but I like wrestling with what I think might have happened to the character that the book left hanging, at least a little.

    In this day, we’re so used to cliffhangers serving as hooks for the next book, but how about them serving as hooks for further thought or discussion? That would be cool, I think!


  7. Galadriel says:

    I have to say, I prefer subtly to obviousness. And I have another Doctor Who example for this (when don’t I?)

    Amy: You want to be forgiven.
    Doctor: Don’t we all? 

    And the way he says it, makes it clear that he’s desperately seeking for forgiveness without beating you over the head with it…I think I prefer more ambiguous,  like when you never find out what the monster is in “Midnight…” just makes it scarier.

What do you think?