Last May, the opening scene I edited raised a lot of questions – about the characters, their relationships, their backstory – without answering them right away. Of course, no opening scene can tell you everything at once, but this one put questions out there and then moved on, leaving readers hanging. This led one commentator to ask about ambiguity and what to do about it.
A quick survey of writing about writing shows that most of the advice you get on ambiguity is on how to get rid of it. I’m not so sure this is wise. Ambiguity can often be a powerful storytelling tool.
Understand, I’m not talking about misdirection, where your readers think they know what’s going on but eventually discover that you’ve been misleading them. And I’m not talking about clear plot questions that readers don’t yet know the answer to – “whodunit” is not a matter of ambiguity. I’m talking about the kind of scenes were readers have no idea what the scene means or why it’s in the book, and the writer knows that readers will feel that way.
You often have no choice but to include some ambiguity in your opening scene, especially if you’ve created a complex world or characters with full, interesting histories. The alternative is to try to convey all that background before the story begins—and weigh down your hook with a lot of exposition. It’s usually much better to simply trust that your readers will keep reading even if they don’t understand everything that’s going on.
Last February, we looked at a YA story set in Ghana, in which the narrator’s mother cooked a chicken that the narrator had considered a pet. One comment raised the question of why the mother did this. I pointed out that the rest of the village also seemed to be involved in the meal, which meant that the mother’s motives probably involved a skein of social obligations that western readers wouldn’t understand without a lot of explanation. But getting into the weeds of the mother’s decision at that moment would have drawn attention away from the narrator’s reaction to losing her chicken, which was the emotional core of the scene. The author had little choice but to leave the mother’s motives up in the air for the time being.
In trying to avoid this kind of thing, writers often choose an opening scene that is entirely self-contained and clear. And this can sometimes work. But it often means avoiding what’s most interesting about your world in your opener, since the things that make your world unique are also the things that make it engaging. Besides, you can often draw readers into your story if you leave them wondering just a bit about what’s going on. This is particularly true in science fiction and fantasy, where readers don’t expect to understand everything right away, or in spy thrillers, where readers expect that things won’t make sense until all is revealed. [Read more…]