Writing Rambles: Cultivating Ambiguity

I have a vexed relationship with contemporary short stories.  Writing a short story is in many ways an entirely different skill from writing a novel, so when even my favorite, most-loved novelists contribute to a short story anthology, I usually end up disappointed with the results.  (And when Edgar Allan Poe, king of short stories, tries to write a novel, everyone ends up disappointed with the result.)  For a while I accepted this situation pretty much at face value.  I figured these authors didn’t focus on crafting short stories, so of course they weren’t as good at it as they were producing longer fiction.  They just needed more practice, which they were unlikely to get because once you’re a bestselling author, there’s little point in moving to the less-glamorous short story market these days.  But the more I thought about why I don’t like many of these stories, the more I began to realize there was a trend.

Perhaps it’s the Edgar Allan Poe influence, but a disproportionate amount of writers seem to believe that a short story has to be suspenseful; it has to be ambiguous.  But there are more and less effective ways of trying to twist your readers’ brains with ambiguity, and for it to work particularly well, the story often needs to be exceptionally clever.  Many stories stop short of cleverness and end up just being frustrating in one of three ways: 1) being so vague that it’s hard to imagine even the author had a clear conception of what was supposed to be happening in the story, 2) just not telling the reader the answer to whatever riddle/mystery/situation was set up, 3) suggesting two answers are possible when they’re clearly contradictory and both are illogical.

I recently ran into this issue with Among the Shadows: 13 Stories of Darkness and Light.  To be fair, this anthology was released around Halloween and was themed around “dark” tales, so there was particular incentive for creepy, ambiguous tales to be submitted.  However, many of them fell flat for me, despite the fact I loved the novels of several of the contributing authors.  A couple of the stories were standouts.  I especially enjoyed Lenore Appelhans’s “Panic Room.”  In a few short pages, she gave me a character, a plot, and enough world-building to make the story work.  Many of the other stories contented themselves with hazy world-building and inexplicable magic, as if writing a short story automatically excuses you from giving your readers context.

Yet this unanswerable ambiguity also makes its way into novels.  I’m somewhat of a black sheep for not loving The Accident Season, and though there were several reasons the novel was not my favorite, the illogical ending sealed the deal for me. [Spoilers ahead.]  The story simply wants to have its eat and eat it, too.  The ending isn’t just artfully unclear; it’s contradictory.  It tries to tell me that the “accident season” isn’t real at all and it’s all in the characters’ heads—but it also wants  me to believe there were supernatural forces at work.  So…some of the accidents were caused by “magic” but not all of them?  I frankly have no idea, but my reaction here is not thoughtful acknowledgment that we cannot have all the answers in the world; it’s frustration because the ending doesn’t make sense.

Total Recall (1990), in contrast, does the ambiguous ending well.  There are two possible interpretations of the move: Quaid is still in the dream-sequence, or he actually woke up at some point during the sequence and the story all really happened.  (Inception could be another example, though I think that movie gives broader hints at the end about which interpretation is correct.)  The key is here that both interpretations are logical—either of these things could reasonably have occurred, given the world-building, and there is enough evidence in the movie for a viewer to argue a case for either interpretation.  Both endings are equally believable.

I enjoy ambiguity, but it’s difficult to do well.  It takes cleverness and a solid set-up.  If one of the two presented options clearly isn’t right based on information or plot occurrences previously given in the story, the ending will fall flat.  If the story just cuts off, it’s not tantalizing or mysterious; it just looks as if the author didn’t have a possible explanation for the strangeness of the story in mind, which makes the whole thing less believable.  Creating ambiguity, it turns out, requires creating a lot of consistency in other areas of the story.  The goal isn’t to have no explanation, but rather to imply there is one, there could be one that works with the rules of the world, even if the readers don’t quite know what it is.



5 thoughts on “Writing Rambles: Cultivating Ambiguity

  1. Sakina says:

    I’m not a fan of short stories either. My prof for my writing class wants us to write a 2000 word short story, but so far all the short stories we’ve read in class have been super weird and confusing. I feel like if mine isn’t weird and confusing enough I’ll lose marks or something. He also wants us to state which short story inspired us to write our story, but I barely read short stories. Do you have any suggestions?


    • Briana says:

      I don’t read very many short stories! But I think a lot of people get their influence from horror writers like Poe, Hawthorne, and King, which is why everyone thinks a short story has to be creepy and not make sense (even though a well-done one DOES make sense).

      L.M. Montgomery has some fun, light-hearted short stories because in addition to novel writing, she made her living submitting short stories to magazines. Some are better than others, and some of them are kind of similar, but at least she gives a different take on what a short story might look like.


    • Krysta says:

      I’ve enjoyed Ambrose Bierce’s short stories. I don’t read many because too often it seems like the author just ends the story to make it seem more complex or mysterious. I like ones that definitely conclude while still leaving room for thought.


  2. Kate Midnight Book Girl says:

    I am a fan of short stories, but I have to say it was Stephen King who really got me into them. He does a short story really well, and it’s often hard to find other authors who can live up to that level of greatness.

    I liked Among the Shadows, but there were some stories better than others, for sure. The best YA collection of short stories that I’ve read in recent memory was Slasher Girls and Monster Boys- I absolutely loved that collection! But I read Bad Seeds which was edited by Holly Black, and most of those stories were terrible. I don’t mind an ambiguous ending at all, but it has to make some kind of sense.

    I just read The Accident Season, and while I really liked it, the ending kept it from being a truly good read- I was confused about certain plot points. I guess I was expecting more magical realism? There were just too many questions left unanswered- that’s not really ambiguous, that’s just poor editing.

    Love this post!


    • Briana says:

      My biggest issue with ambiguous endings is when there doesn’t seem to be a possible answer–not even one that work within some set of rules of magic unique to the world. Things just inexplicably happen and then cut off. The author doesn’t know what happened or why it happened, so neither do you. An answer isn’t possible.

      The Accident Season drove me nuts because it’s answer was “The accident season isn’t real; it’s all in your head. Except for some parts that were real and caused by a magic curse. It was half real?” That means it was real, and the family just had some natural accidents that coincided with the cursed one. But it wasn’t just in their heads. At all.


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