Tuesday, December 7, 2010

In Praise of Ambiguity

One of the things I have come to believe is that stories which can't easily be summed up, whose themes are complicated or ambiguous, whose characters are neither good nor bad nor indifferent, are the stories that stay with us the longest and have the most power with readers. Stories that reduce life to simple, easily-digested and easily-described forces tend to be forgettable and aren't the stories that readers come back to or put into the hands of other readers. But stories that mirror the real complexity of the world sometimes take on lives of their own and work their way into the fabric of our culture. Myths do this, and if you look at myths you will see that they are generally messy and morally indeterminate. The plays (especially the tragedies) of Shakespeare do this, with their unexplained bursts of violence and their protagonists who are both hero and devil.

Where, you might ask, is all of this coming from? Well, I am writing a synopsis of my novel Cocke & Bull. I've never had the scintillating pleasure of crafting a synopsis before, but I figured it couldn't be that hard. After all, I know the story pretty well and I have my outline so how difficult can it be to flesh out my notes into a one-page narrative of the narrative?

It turned out to be harder than it looked, because while the story is fairly straightforward and the character arcs are easy enough to describe, the meaning of the dramatic action is ambiguous. Why do my characters do the things they do? Well, it's complicated. How do my characters feel about each other and themselves? Well, it's not really clear and it depends, you know, it really depends. The more I narrow the focus of the discussion about the story, the less powerful the story seems.

You know how, when you're in grammar school English classes (and sometimes when you're in university-level English courses), the teacher tries to get you to come up with a one-sentence statement of a story's themes? I don't care what your one sentence is; any decent story is going to be poorly-described by it. With a good teacher, those "theme sentences" might lead to a smart discussion of the story, but the discussion of stories shouldn't lead to those reductionist one-sentence statements. Because a good story is rich and has multiple layers that cannot easily be described. A good writer examines her topics from many angles and shows those angles to the reader but never sums up or chooses which angle is best, especially which ethical or moral angle. A good writer sympathizes with his characters but doesn't shy away from showing when those characters do unsympathetic things.

A good story is not simple.

When I revise, there is a temptation to cut out anything that adds ambiguity to the story. There is a temptation to eliminate multiple meanings, to narrow, to remove vagueness, to cast everything as either/or and to make the actions, characters and themes easy to grasp. This is a temptation that I must resist, because if I give in to that temptation, the story will be emptied out, and much smaller than life. I don't mind writing a story that can't really be figured out once and for all. The truth, at least as I see it, is that life is difficult and messy and not readily summed up. I want my fiction to be the same way.

Which means that my synopsis will of necessity be a sort of one-dimensional discussion of my novel, but that's okay as long as I don't start thinking that the book should be as easy to grasp as the synopsis.


  1. The synopsis is the hardest part for me to write. How can you get EVERYTHING you want to say about your novel in 6-8 paragraphs. Finding the best of the "layers" is fine, but I also want to put in a few of the bottom "layers" to even things out. It's a catch-22 at best.

  2. While I've yet to right a synopsis under the pressure of professional expectation, when I've practiced writing them, it's been okay for me because I didn't necessarily see them as trying to get across everything I said in the books. Instead, they were about helping someone understand enough of the book that they (a) would want to read the whole thing and (b) could tell others about it so that they would want to read it.

    Because I think you're right, Scott. While I do think you can have a good story that is simple, such a story is inherently of-the-moment. When it's all wrapped up neatly and presented with its own conclusion, the reader might give it a thumbs-up, but it will pass from mind. A more complex, ambiguous story, however, gives the reader something to ponder and think about. And that means the story stays with them.

    From my safe distance, it seems like you can probably hint at ambiguity in your synopsis without actually introducing it.

  3. I get really frustrated when a writer (often a screenwriter) criticizes my work because she or he isn't able to summarize the entire thing in one sentence. I don't want you to be able to summarize my story in one sentence. Otherwise, I'd write one sentence!

  4. Scott, I had the same problem with the novel I've been working on. It's highly complex, multi-voiced and I've woven layer upon layer of symbolism into it.

    The synopsis and query were hell to write and until I came across this website

    (see sidebar for subject tags)

    I only had rejections because I kept on trying to get the complexities of my novel into the query/synopsis. Once I read through Anne's articles, it changed my whole way of writing a synopsis/query and I've already had a request for a full from my new query!

    Good luck - and rather struggle with the query and keep your novel ambiguous, because that's the difference between a good novel and a great one.

    Judy(South Africa)

  5. I've felt the same way before, but because so many people want to know everything immediately, I often consider clever ways to employ double meanings and the like.

  6. Anne: My first difficulty was keeping it under one page, because I wanted to show all the causal relationships, which you just can't do in a synopsis. Well, the main plot arc but nothing much else.

    Nevets: I like "Mission: Impossible," but I can watch "Lawrence of Arabia" many more times because there's just a lot more to it, and it doesn't have just a single moral point of view; it shows the complexity of the world and its (main) characters.

    Big D: Word! You can say something meaningful about a book in one sentence, and you can sell a book with one sentence, but you certainly can't meaningfully reduce a book of any depth to one sentence.

    Judy: Yeah, it's weird to try finding one aspect of the novel that you think will intrigue a reader when you as writer find the whole of it intriguing and necessary. It's like saying, "This is my daughter; she has nice hair" and not mentioning her singing voice or her charm or her quick temper or her bad habit of tattling on her older brother. She's just got nice hair.

    My agent is sending me tips on writing a synopsis, because the one I wrote is so awful. But that's okay, it was my first try and I expected it to be bad since I had no idea what I was doing.

  7. Justus: "All you need to know is that it's brilliant. Just read the durn thing, ya durn fool!" You're welcome.

  8. Perfect query. No wonder you snagged an agent.

  9. The synopsis cannot capture all the complexities of your story, but it can hint at it, teasing the reader, providing sniffs of conflict and indecision. Yes, a good story is not an easy one. Sometimes, the writer has wowen so many themes that only discerning readers can discover.

    Congratulations for writing such a story. Looking forward to reading it.

  10. Great point.

    I hate when books oversimplify things, since it feels as if the author underestimated the intelligence of the reader.

    Give me a challenge. Give me complexities....


  11. Misha: Don't get me wrong, there's still a place for escapist fare. I just don't want to write it, that's all.

  12. A synopsis is very difficult to write. Almost harder than the query - though that's debatable. Well, my query was easire to hone AFTER several synopsis were written.

    Gee, what a toss up question.

    But I get what you mean about scraping all the ambiguity. I like to think a bit for myself about a story and what it means to me personally. I hope that aligns with where the writer was going, but sometimes, people view info differently.

    Too simplistic is boring.

    Good luck with the synopsis.


  13. Scott, this is the most brilliant post EVER, and explains exactly what I've been thinking for quite a long time about CINDERS. It's ambiguous, and I'm afraid that's why the back blurb was so freaking hard to write, and why I've had major issues over boiling the description and the genre and the intended audience down to narrow focused ideas. Because it's ambiguous, and that's the way I wanted. I wanted it to be real.

    This is one of the reasons I love your work and Davin's work so much - because it's this ambiguity you both seem to nail. This is where literary fiction starts to be literary fiction - for me.

  14. I think that is why I find short stories dificult to write. I want to explore things more in depth.
    As of late I have been frusterated with literary critics maligning ambiguity. It seems like their favorite words are "conrete" and "details" when a better choice would be "vivid" and "specific" which are less likely to make a piece simplistic. Try explaining a dream with concrete details. It doesn't work but dreams stick with people a long time. People remember how they taste and feel and smell but could never explain them in a setence. Sometimes not even in a story.

    I hope I didn't stray too far off topic. I just needed to vent a bit.

  15. When I attempted a synopsis for my first story, it revealed how boring and one-dimensional my story was. I started adding things to the synopsis that wasn't in the book just to make it more interesting. Naturally, I rewrote everything from scratch.

    So, when is the one-sentence-as-a-story contest beginning?

  16. Charlie: The contest starts today! Davin will go first!

  17. Maybe the contest can start tomorrow and then I don't have to write the post I was planning to write!

  18. Taryn: You put that really well, thank you.

  19. Very interesting. I had a mental block about the synopsis, but once I got started, it wasn't that hard. Then again maybe my story is simple.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.