Friday, August 8, 2008

Una Voce Poco Fa

There are two basic ways to dramatize ambiguity, particularly at the ending of a scene, chapter, story, or novel.

Write the scene, chapter, story, or novel with as much relevant detail as possible, doing your best to demonstrate the intention of each character involved. Approach said scene, chapter, story, or novel as an editor, cutting a newspaper story (by trimming it from the last paragraph upward. As you do so, you will be removing first the authorial presence and then the literal qualities resident within the narrator, continuing to prune until the point where you believe it is impossible to prune beyond. Then do so--cut one more paragraph than you believe you possibly can. This has the effect of bringing the reader, sensing some kind of ending is about to arrive, into a sharper, more serious focus, which is exactly what you wish. Now the reader does what the reader will do under any circumstances, and so you had better get used to it (unless you fancy yourself an Emily Dickinson). One of the values of ambiguity is to allow the reader to do what the reader will do under most circumstances whether you admire it or not. Get used to it. Even if you are more literal than you intended, some readers will embed your narrative with themes, metaphor, and subtext you never intended. If some of these readers happen to be on your tenure committee--well, never mind that, but do consider that the best way to see The Reader is as an active rather than passive voice, which means some work should be had from the reader. We do this by ending scenes, chapters, stories, and novels in precisely those places where the reader cannot help but draw conclusions, Writers want readers to take chances, to make assumptions, to be led down the garden path. (A reader would rather be wrong than right because a reader who has guessed correctly much of the time has demonstrated himself or herself to be suspicious, cynical, and distrustful. A reader who is correct in most assumptions relating to the characters is on the cusp of being bored. A reader who outguesses you will not come back for more. A known devious writer who plots as well as, say Harlen Coben on one side of the coin or Jim Harrison on the other side will keep you awake and worried, which is where you want to be.

The second approach to ambiguity is to have one or more of the essential characters doing something symbolic such as running to catch a train, standing on Fifth Avenue at five in the p.m., trying to hail a taxi, bursting into the office of a superior and demanding a raise, asking out for a date someone believed to be utterly not attractable, or spending the character's last money on an enormous bouquet of flowers. And ending right there.

Mind you, we as writer should know what we intend. We are not engaged in a contest of cryptography we are investing our senses in the anarchy and absurdity of a world where we cannot always control events but in which we nevertheless hope for the best possible outcome. It will sound bleak, noir, cynical to say that outcomes don't matter because they are largely blunted or co-opted or denied in real life, but such bleakness, noirishness, and cynicism are links to the potential of miracle and magic, two elements that in real life drama translate to a moment or two of pure happiness, the time frame by which we have become used to evaluating our times of pleasure, and the scenarios we use to scheme for more.

It is perfectly logical for us to read with the hope and anticipation of understanding, but as we pursue the text for meaning and identity, it becomes clearer to us that we have arrived in the land of ambiguity without a passport. For a moment the straits seem dire, but then laughter takes hold. It is the laughter of relief that the castaways in the text are characters--perhaps even characters of our own devising. But they are not us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, there you go. I don't even know what I'm doing half the time (and am not paying attention the other half probably), but this sounds right.

I hope I don't tell the reader what to think. I know the reader often surprises me. You make me feel better about that.