Last weekend we woke to unidentifiable footprints out the front door. After omitting the usual suspects (Cat? Dog? Raccoon? Fox?) we were at a loss. Still are. Still perplexed. And slightly perplexed is mightily entertaining. It triggers the imagination, invites you to solve a puzzle, and keeps you alert and engaged. Will there be a different, better hint?
Tip: The great secrets of fiction leave you wondering, long after the clues melt away.
In this sense, every novel is a mystery novel—whether or not you include corpses or detectives. Your readers try to guess what’s ahead, what this detail signifies, and how the protagonist earns the ending. If you’re doing your job right, they continue guessing. Until the end. That’s where the surprise materializes. Not a total one, of course. The best endings leave readers scratching their heads over all those clever clues—not one of them misleading—that cause the ending. But never obviously. That’s where ambiguity comes in.
Milan Kundera observed that “The greater the ambiguity, the greater the pleasure.” To approach an almost-imitation of life, fiction can’t be too clear. After all, in reality, when is any choice or belief or outcome ever crystalline? For example, is the borderline between life and death always a given?
That’s why Joyce Carol Oates said that novelists toy with “The ideal art, the noblest of art: working with the complexities of life, refusing to simplify, to ‘overcome’ doubt.” If you already know all the answers, are you sure that fiction is what you want to write?
Like Oates, Scott Turow, famed for legal thrillers, believes that “The purpose of narrative is to present us with complexity and ambiguity.” What motivates folks to keep reading if you spell everything out?
Readers want footprints—visible, but not unequivocally identifiable. One of the best ways to get there? Metaphor.
Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse relies heavily on the central metaphor of its title. But what exactly does it mean? The unattainable? The illuminating? The permanent in the face of mortality? Art? Love? All of the above?
The fun is guessing, just as it’s fun to speculate why Jonathan Franzen called his book “Purity,” why Shauna Singh Baldwin chose the title “What the Body Remembers,” or the precise meaning of the bloom at the center of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The White Rose.
Guessing keeps people turning pages. Or pondering pawprints. Those melted before we could figure them out. And that’s okay, because “Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity,” Sigmund Freud claimed. And ambiguity is the privilege of drawing your own conclusions.