Beautiful Ambiguity

So one of the great things about spending 800 miles in a car with two talented authors is that you get to talk about fun writing stuff. One thing we discussed on the way back from San Diego is how important it is not to spell out every little thing when writing. Leave some questions unanswered, leave some details unexplained.

One of my favorite genres to read is magical realism. In magical realism, weird stuff happens and the author never says why. Forgive me for quoting Wikipedia, but here’s a good explanation:

Authorial reticence is the “deliberate withholding of information and explanations about the disconcerting fictitious world”.[12] The narrator is indifferent, a characteristic enhanced by this absence of explanation of fantastic events; the story proceeds with “logical precision” as if nothing extraordinary took place.[13][14] Magical events are presented as ordinary occurrences; therefore, the reader accepts the marvelous as normal and common.[15] Explaining the supernatural world or presenting it as extraordinary would immediately reduce its legitimacy relative to the natural world. The reader would consequently disregard the supernatural as false testimony.

I think part of what appeals to me about this sort of ambiguity in literature is that it echoes real life. Every day, things happen and we don’t know why. For example, my iPhone can do all sorts of amazing things, and I don’t have a clue how. Yes, I know science could explain it all, but I don’t need or want those explanations–I just want to take photos and tweet and text and check my email and do all the other stuff I do. Airplanes are another good example. Yes, physicists can tell us all about lift and propulsion and stuff, but I don’t have to understand any of it to fly across the world.

As for leaving questions unanswered, life does that too. Lots of important stuff–Why am I here? How long do I have? What makes other people tick? Speculating on those issues keeps us busy.

And ambiguity isn’t only real, it’s beautiful. Consider this from my garden:


How long will these blooms last? When will the other buds open? Have these flowers been visited by hummingbirds yet? Has some of the pollen on those anthers been transferred to a waiting pistil? Is the plant receiving the precise mixture of sunlight, moisture, and nutrients to bring out its best? Will my husband wipe the whole thing out during his next overly-ambitious weeding effort? Dunno. But my lack of knowledge doesn’t make the blossoms any less beautiful.

When you read some of stories, you may find that I haven’t explained everything. How did the magic work in Phoenix? What exactly was the officer in Motel. Pool.? What kind of future might be in the cards for an ex-con and a 4000-year-old Mesopotamian vampire? Fill in the blanks with your imagination. Find a little beauty in the parts left unsaid.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *