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Monday, January 11, 2016

Vague Vs. Ambiguous: Which are You Writing?

Imagine you sat down and started reading a story that opened like this.

"What are those people doing out here?"
"I don't know."
Poppy sighed and ran a hand through her hair. The woman was very old. Her sister took off her scarf and went inside.
"How many days until Wind Set Day?" the prophetess asked.
"Four, maybe five, perhaps," she said.

How many people are in the story? Two? Four? What's the setting? Since someone goes inside, we can assume the characters are outside of something, so they are probably outdoors, but we don't know for sure. And what does the sister go inside of? A house? A store? A box? What kind? What's "Wind Set Day"?

These are all things we can guess at, but we can't really get a picture of what is going on. It's vague. Unfortunately a lot of unpublished stories start this way. Later in this post, I'll go more into why new writers often make the mistake of starting like this and exactly how it works to create a problem. (And yes, of course, all rules are made to be broken).

Vague writing is like this picture. Its blurry. Unfocused. As a reader, we can't really tell what is going on.

While "vague" and "ambiguous" are often considered synonyms, in a lot of places in the writing world, they don't mean the same thing.

"Vague" deals with the story being out of focus and vapory. It's not quite anything.

"Ambiguity" happens when something in the story could mean multiple things--supported by evidence.

Ambiguity is like this picture. An optical illusion. You can clearly see faces or a vase, in the same picture.

You can concretely see one or the other, and there is evidence to support both.

In Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, the tributes hear twelve gongs in the arena. One character says, "Twelve, for midnight." Another says, "Or twelve districts." At that point in the story, the reader doesn't know which character (if either) is right, but each suggestion makes sense. The twelve gongs are ambiguous.

Vague writing isn't always bad writing, of course, but you need to know how to tell the difference and know when to use each effectively. Here's a poem that's famous for being vague.

By Lewis Carroll

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
      Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
      And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
      And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
      The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
      He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
      Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
      He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

The only way we can get any inkling of what the made up words mean is because of where they are used, grammatically. Our brain goes "slithy" is an adjective. "Toves" is a noun. But we don't know what they mean. We can almost understand the poem, but it's blurry. It's vague.

As for ambiguity, read and then study analyses of "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It's famous for its many interpretations, each of which can be backed up with evidence in the story. It's like that optical illusion. It's a vase, and it's two faces.

The Biggest Problem with being Vague

Lack of Context = Lack of Tension

Often new writers are taught to start in the middle of conflict or action, which can be great advice, as long as it doesn't make the opening too vague. A lot of times I see stories where the writer tries so hard to start in the middle of action that there is no context for what is happening. It's all blurry. Starting a story with a bunch of action with no sense of context is little better than starting a story too early.

If your story is too vague, you lose tension. The reader needs context so they can get involved in the story and care about what's happening. If the writer doesn't give them any context, they feel no tension, because they don't know or care about what is going on. Make sense?

If you're reading this and saying "Crap, this might be me." No worries. It's a phase almost all writers go through, including myself.

False Tension

Some new writers who read this might say, "Hey, but that actually takes the tension out of my story, because if the reader has the context, the story lacks mystery!"

If your story opening can be ruined simply by added enough context for your reader to get a grip on what's happening and care about it, you might be creating what's called "false tension." This usually happens when the opening of the story isn't interesting enough to carry its own tension, and so the writer tries to "hide" something from the reader to make it seem like it has tension.

I saw an example of false tension the other day on T.V. I don't know what the show was, but it had just started after I finished watching The First 48. There was a girl running in the woods. She was out of breath, and kept looking over her shoulder. The camera angles and music led you to believe that someone dangerous was chasing her. But when she stops, the camera pulls back, and you realize it was just her personal trainer. There was nothing really dangerous happening, we just didn't have enough context--which was incidentally context that the viewpoint character already did have.

Another common example of false tension is a story that opens up with the character being in mortal danger, and then waking up to his alarm clock--it was all a dream.

Some writers say all false tension is bad, but I can't fully agree with that. There are places where I definitely think it works, and I've seen places where I've liked it, but it shouldn't be a cop-out. It should have purpose.

Nine times out of ten, you don't want to create tension by withholding obvious information from your reader (i.e. the person chasing your character is their personal trainer, not a murderer). They need some context, real context.

That's where ambiguity comes in.

Why and How Ambiguity Works

Ambiguity happens when you provide plenty of context (read: evidence), instead of not enough. The mystery and tension doesn't come from what we don't know, it comes from what we do know. A, B, or C, could all be Subject 1--and the tension is that we don't know which. Think back to "The Yellow Wallpaper." That's ambiguity.

I'm writing this blog post the same weekend that the new Star Wars movie comes out. There have been a lot of theories as to who the villain is. I've heard some say he is Luke. I've heard others say they think he's some kind of reincarnation, maybe of Darth Maul. I've heard someone else say it's a clone of Luke. My brother said it could be Jason Solo, one of Han and Leia's sons. See all the different possibilities in play? Right now the identity of the villain is ambiguous, and people are going crazy over the mystery. In fact, it feels more mysterious than if the villain was vague. All of these theories have come up because of the context provided from trailers, publicity, and the Star Wars universe--from the context. If the villain was completely vague, didn't fit any context, we would have no theories, only maybe interest and curiosity. We wouldn't care as much. But it's the fact that there are multiple possibilities--each one promising powerful tension and conflict--that make us invested in it.

The same thing happened with Snape in the Harry Potter fandom. Whose side is Snape on? Dumbledore's or Voldemort's? There is evidence to support both.

When creating mystery in your stories, you might actually find that the way to do it is not to withhold meaning and information, but to muddy the waters by providing too much. Make each possibility promising and interesting in its own way.

Ambiguity works great to create mystery and tension with someone (or something) who is a key player in the story (Kylo, Snape).

Of course, vague does work too, but in a different way for different things.

When Vague Works

Vague is great for things in the story that are somewhat in the background, or at least passed off as being in the background, like Harry's scar. It plays a part in almost all the books, but we don't think of it as a "key player," at least not until later in the series, or until we have more context. The mystery around his scar is vague, we only know he got it when Voldemort tried to kill Lily and that it gave Harry some of Voldemort's powers. The scar is (basically) never the focus itself, just its symptoms are.

Vague mysteries might make us go, "Hmmm, I wonder what that means," or "Something's weird about that." Vague can work in stronger ways too, like when the viewpoint character simply doesn't have enough information. She might even be seeking for the information or context and keep coming up empty (if she started getting a lot of information, it would turn it into ambiguity). Usually (not always) to get vagueness to work at its best, it's about a detail or something that is passed over, so that when we do get the context, we can look back and go--"OOOHH!!" The blurry picture comes into focus, and it creates a moment of realization, an epiphany. The Sixth Sense is an example of a story that works off of being vague (which is partly one of the reasons some critics have a problem with it. I think M. Night Shyamalan pulled it off, which is just one reason why I say vague can work--look at the success of that movie).

In contrast, ambiguity creates reactions that are more like-- "I KNEW IT!" or "I can't believe that!" "I knew Snape was a good guy!" or "I totally thought Kylo Ren was going to be Luke! I can't believe he was such-and-such!"

One trick to pulling off the vague approach better is to not focus on what you are withholding from the reader, but instead portray any information gained as just that, more information. This is how it was done in The Sixth Sense (if I'm remembering right, it's been years since I saw it). We never felt like the truth about Bruce Willis's character was being withheld from us, instead, we simply learned more about him--his wife isn't speaking to him, for example. It's a bit vague, but we don't think too much about it. But when we have our AHA! moment, finding out he's dead, what we knew came into focus.

In my story, I have a mystery that I was trying to approach as vague, but I realized it was such a key player in the story, that it would be annoying and obvious if I kept it vague the whole story. So know what I'm going to do? Muddy the waters with ambiguity.


  1. A most interesting blog. I think I've been a little vague in my first novel.


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