When does ambiguity work in a story? Well, the answer to that question can be interpreted a number of different ways…
Joking aside, there are some who really cannot stand ambiguity in any story. Everything must be tied up in a neat bundle with all questions answered. Of course, some stories need this. It would be foolish, for instance, if a genre whodunnit mystery did not identify the killer.
In other stories ambiguity becomes desirable. Interpreting events in a variety of ways can in itself be hugely satisfying. This is true of everything from EM Forster’s A Passage to India to Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. The latter introduces ambiguity in the finale, which is what seems to particularly irk those who like clear cut resolutions. But you’d have to be particularly obtuse to think Life of Pi would be a better novel without that final act casting doubt on what we’ve read up to that point.
Unreliable first person narrators are often a great device for introducing ambiguity into a story. Two first rate examples are Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Both narrators are secondary characters who share certain things in common. Within the context of their respective plots, both at first seem more clear-headed than the passionate, impetuous main protagonists, but their emotional timidity also causes them to arrive at conclusions that the reader realises are one-sided or inaccurate. Incidentally, this framing device makes it abundantly clear that neither is really a love story (a mistaken interpretation often applied to adaptations of both books).
When novels or short stories are adapted for cinema, sometimes the writer and director will differ on the correct interpretation where there is ambiguity in the plot. For example, events in 2001: A Space Odyssey can be attributed to that of a Supreme Being – an interpretation Stanley Kubrick was quite happy to make available to viewers – whereas Arthur C Clarke who wrote the original short story had very strong views on the non existence of God.
Another recent example is Swedish horror film Let the Right One In. Apparently the director Tomas Alfredson and the novel’s author John Ajvide Lindqvist completely disagreed on how the ending should be interpreted. I have had a number of intense discussions with people who have seen that film, and we have come up with at least another two possible readings of the story.
My point is these books and films are all the better for provoking such a wide range of differing interpretations. Sometimes different possibilities are better than a clear cut explanation, and on rare occasions questions are better than answers. For example what on earth the monumentally eerie Picnic at Hanging Rock is really about (both the book and the film) is beyond me. But boy is it fun proposing theories.
From my own work, two novels particularly stand out as examples of stories where I have deliberately introduced ambiguity in the finales: Uncle Flynn, which I have self-published, and Children of the Folded Valley, which will either be self-published soon or… well, watch this space.
The finale of Uncle Flynn can be taken three separate ways, and people often ask me which is the correct interpretation. I always refuse to answer. I have a clear notion in my own mind of what the truth is, but I wanted to allow the reader to bring their own experience and beliefs to the final act as I think the story is more satisfying that way.
So far people who have read it always agree. Well, almost always.