Skip to main content

Sometimes ambiguity is unintentional.

The other day, I heard somebody say that the reason 2001 was such a great movie is because it challenges the audience to figure out what's going on rather than explaining everything.  They went on and on about how great the ambiguity was and how that makes stories so much better, and therefore modern stories that explain things are worse.

That's all bullshit, of course.

Let's be clear: 2001 had a terrible story.  2001 was amazing for a lot of things - visuals, tone, mood, effects, cinematography, lighting - but not the writing.  It's not ambiguous because Kubrick was trying to craft the perfect story.  It's the complete opposite: it's ambiguous because he didn't put any effort in the story.  That wasn't what he was going after.  He was trying to find nifty ways to pluck your emotional strings using sight and sound.  It's a great movie, but you have to admire it for the right reasons.

Audiences have an amazing capacity for adding things to a work that weren't there to begin with.  The more idolized the creator, the more likely people are to chalk up those peculiarities as being integral to the work.  Therefore: totally intentional.

I just think a lot of that stuff is a mistake.  I say this as a writer who makes mistakes all the time.  Sometimes you leave out details to create suspense, and sometimes you leave them out because you just don't care.  You're only telling the parts of the story that matter to you.

Consider something like The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.  It's Edgar Allen Poe's only novel and it's a fascinating read.  Very bizarre.  It starts out as an adventure on the high seas, then turns into a survival drama with some shades of horror, then turns into kind of a travelogue, then turns into a racist science-fiction thriller in Antarctica.

The one thing it doesn't do is end.  I'm not being coy; it literally has no ending.  It cuts off abruptly and then an editor comes in to say, "I'm sorry, but the rest of the story has been lost. Oh, well."

Pym was not well-regarded upon initial release, but has slowly garnered a following.  Naturally, readers nowadays seek meaning in every word of the text.  There's an endless barrage of psychoanalytic nonsense out there if you want to go digging for it - people get to the ending and think it must mean something.  But they're wrong.

I say this as a fan of the book: the ending is just plain terrible.  It's not a brilliant twist, it's not clever ambiguity, and Poe certainly wasn't trying to set up a sociological metaphor.  He just didn't feel like writing the story any longer.  It's ambiguous through laziness, not craftsmanship.

That's the thing that amazes me about a good work of art.  If you hook your audience deep enough, they will not only ignore any gaps in your story, they will turn them around and make them part of the story.

No - more than that.  They'll idolize your mistakes.  That plot hole?  No, it wasn't a plot hole - it was amazing writing!  You totally meant it as a subtle indication of the hypocritical nature of politicians!  There's no way that you, the amazing author of my favorite story ever, could possibly have been a human being and made a mistake!

Hell, I just caught one of the most embarrassing flubs I've ever seen in Bitter People Without Souls the other day.  There's a chapter toward the end where Mary leaves home on a task of questionable morals, and the scene clearly takes place late at night.  Then she comes home and it's suddenly early evening.  This is absolutely, 100% a mistake on my part (and has since been corrected for any future buyers).

But if my book was a smashing success and I left it that way?  People would be saying things like, "Oh, look how brilliantly he communicated Mary's frantic state of mind in this scene!  She can't even tell whether it's day or night and neither can you!  That's such good writing!"

Time and high hopes make for some very strange interpretations.  If there is an afterlife, I hope I can hang out with all the great writers of yesteryear and share some of the stuff people think about their work.  Kubrick's laughing at you suckers, I swear to God.