CRAFT OF LITERARY 1.7: Featuring Daren Dean – “Ambiguity and The Staging of Desire”
One of the biggest problems I see in student writing in my creative writing classes has been the failure of the student not to explain within the confines of the story just what the story adds up to for the reader. It’s the difference between that old phrase, show don’t tell. Sometimes we need a little bit of both. Flannery O’Connor said, “You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.” However, O’Connor doesn’t address why we sometimes hate, and sometimes love, ambiguous endings.
A piece of commercial fiction usually does not leave the character’s motivation in doubt. This may be a gross oversimplification but such a piece of writing is usually going to great lengths to tell us what the character is thinking and feeling the entire time and ultimately why.
Wait! There are some wonderful books that end in ambiguity, you say!
Sometimes ambiguity leads the reader to ponder the story as a whole. For example, in Great Expectations, Dickens ends the novel with Pip saying, “I saw no shadow of another parting from her.” What does it mean? Does he walk off into the sunset with Estella? Or, is it over with her for good?
Charles Baxter wrote in The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, “creating a scene is thus the staging of a desire.” What are the characters after? Do they achieve it or not in other words. The climax of the story should build and seem inevitable rather than as a result of random chance. Sometimes in real life things often seem to be decided by coincidence or chance but as Mark Twain once told us, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”
Consider T. S. Eliot’s theory of the Objective Correlative, which could be explained as a series of events that evoke a response. It sounds rather mathematical but what is absolutely correct about it in a traditional story is that the events appear to build to an inevitable conclusion. When this doesn’t happen in fiction, it leaves us wondering as readers “what’s happening here?” The beginning writer will say, “I wanted to leave it to the reader to interpret it anyway he or she wants.” Usually, the reason for this from the beginning writer (a workshop story for example) is that the story is still not as developed as it should be. The writer is not finished writing and revising the story, so it’s rather easy to fall back on ‘I leave it to the reader to decide.’
If the reader doesn’t know what is at stake, then it’s likely the writer doesn’t either. My advice to the young writer is don’t make the reader do all the work as you write your story.
Create a story with intention and the reader will be sure to understand your ending, whether it’s explicit or hinted at implicitly.
ABOUT DAREN: Daren Dean is the author of Far Beyond the Pale. His fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in BULL, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Missouri Life, The Oklahoma Review, Midwestern Gothic, Ecotone, Image, Chattahoochee Review, Fiction Southeast, Story South, Aries, and others. His story “Bring Your Sorrow Over Here” was selected as Runner-up by Judge George Singleton in Yemassee’s William Richey Short Fiction contest and another story, “Affliction” was a Finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Fiction Contest for New Writers in 2012. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Dean also worked for several years at the University of Missouri Press. Currently, he teaches creative writing and literature in the English department at Louisiana State University. Check out his book here.
Craft of Literary features flash essays on craft, CW pedagogy, and publishing by emerging and established writers. For more information, click here.