Craft Essay: Productive Ambiguity

April 11, 2017

Our Editorial Director and I recently conducted an exchange for our Notes From The Slush series. It’s one of our favorite ways to discuss what we saw in submissions and talk about work on a craft level. One of the things that came up in our discussion was the question: what makes the beginning of a story effective? And it got me thinking about what other elements are essential to a successful beginning.

It is very hard to strike the right balance between clarity and ambiguity at the beginning of a short story. The entry point to the piece needs to reveal information without giving too much away. But it’s tricky: excessive exposition turns into an information dump. Not enough info, and the story lacks a foundation.

Good beginnings are satisfying because of a nice balance between what we know and what we want to know. This is especially true in stories with magical realism, speculative elements, or stories that take place in worlds unlike our own. World building is its own very special skill, and is a big part of how a story begins. Writers who are good at it provide the clarity of concrete details while still keeping the reader asking questions like, “what is going to happen next?” or “what am I going to learn?”

In Jeff VanderMeer’s excellent craftbook, Wonderbook, he suggests opening your story with a lure and then offering context. This speaks to the balance of clarity and ambiguity. Your story should begin with delicious and exciting questions, while providing enough information for the foundation of your piece.

Think of your favorite story and I’m sure you can identify some level of ambiguity. If the writing is good, the kind of ambiguity we’re talking about is productive — it keeps the reader interested and is an enjoyable part of discovery. Information and details are slowly revealed, filling in gaps of understanding just as the reader needs them.

One of my favorite stories is “Ponies” by Kij Johnson. In this story, Barbara is invited to a cutting-out party by a group of popular girls. It’s a coming-of-age event, where girls remove the wings and horns from their magical ponies, turning their horses into regular pets. It’s a very short piece and it won the Nebula Award in 2010.

Many things make this story successful, but it is a good example of productive ambiguity and clarity working in balance. Johnson doesn’t come right out and say how exactly the cutting will work, what will be gained by the process, or how much Barbara knows about the party beforehand, but the reader comes to understand each of these essential elements as the narrative moves along.

Johnson does give us some information upfront however: “Then all Ponies go to a cutting-out party, and they give up two of the three, because that’s what has to happen if a girl is going to fit in…” This is a great example of details being offered to anchor readers to the world of the piece with a lot of discovery still yet to take place. We know the girls will take two elements from the ponies: horn, wings, or voice, but what happens next is a mystery.

While ambiguity and clarity are essential to the start of the piece, the balance must also be right throughout the entire story. When I am reading submissions for The Masters Review I think a lot about the details being withheld from a piece and whether or not that ambiguity is productive.

In the novella “Of Mice and Men,” Steinbeck uses Lenny’s learning disability to infuse the story with instability. Steinbeck builds Lenny’s unpredictability throughout the narrative and its place in the story’s climax is fully earned. We don’t exactly know the specifics of what Lenny understands and doesn’t — we don’t know his diagnosis — we simply know his it is essential to his character. This ambiguity is productive. It is in perfect balance with, and necessary to the success of, the rest of the piece. In the case of “Of Mice and Men,” it is elemental to the story.

Laurie Colwin’s “Mr. Parker” is another example of productive ambiguity. In this short story, a girl attends piano lessons at the house of Mr. Parker, a man whose wife has recently died. The girl’s mother is anxious about her daughter being alone in the house with Mr. Parker. Specifically, she is worried he will “touch her.” Mr. Parker does touch the girl — he puts his hands on her shoulders after she performs a difficult piece — a congratulatory gesture. It’s a confusing moment for the girl because she’s been warned against it, yet Mr. Parker’s motivations are entirely wholesome. For readers, the ambiguity of the gesture is clearer than it is to the girl, but it heightens tension in the story and services the piece’s central theme.

On this level, and when fiction is at its very best, ambiguity forces readers to consider the “why” of a piece, and ultimately provides a better story overall.

Ask yourself when you’re writing if the details you’re withholding from your reader are productive. Especially in the beginning of your piece, consider what kinds of physical, emotional, and logical details are being kept from your reader and why. How much does the reader know and how much do you want them to know? Writers who understand their work know why they are being ambiguous and how it services their story. When you know exactly why your piece lacks clarity, and when the clarity services natural discovery, you’re working toward a very well written story.

by Kim Winternheimer


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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