It’s very cool these days to be dealing with some level of ambiguity in stories. We see this in the popularity of TV shows like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, and we see it in a different way in classic (and equally popular) shows like the X-Files. The former shows are playing with a degree of moral ambiguity. They present characters who aren’t clearly good or evil, who challenge our concept of good and bad. That kind of moral complexity is always satisfying to see. On the other hand, shows like the X-Files are playing with ambiguity on the plane of reality. Sometimes we aren’t sure whether what we saw was real or not; we’re not sure who we can believe. Playing with reality in that way is an age-old technique, such as in The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland. At the end of Alice’s story, she appears to wake up from a dream. Is Wonderland real, or only a mental state? That question adds a fresh dimension to the story.
The problem is that presenting these planes of ambiguity in too many dimensions can result in a failed story, a story we can’t moor ourselves to effectively. Many students hand in work to me that include some sort of a morally ambiguous hero, committing morally shady acts. At the same time, the story might all be a dream, or an illusion like the Matrix. When we have ambiguity existing in these two different dimensions, it’s as if we are trying to solve an equation that has two variables; it can’t be done without more information, something we can trust.
To put it another way, if everything that is happening might be a dream, why do we care if the character is good or bad? If her actions have no consequences, or might have no consequences, then what does it matter if the actions are good or bad? Or to look at it in the other direction, if we can’t tell whether the character’s actions are good or bad, why does it matter if they are real or not real? Having two dimensions of ambiguity in his way keeps us from investing emotionally in the character. We feel confused and a little betrayed by the author; we are being manipulated, not moved.
When I point this out to young student authors, they are often defensive. “You just don’t get it,” they tell me. “The reader is supposed to be confused. It’s supposed to be ambiguous. You’re not supposed to be sure what’s going on.” That may be the intention, but it’s actually manipulative to keep your reader entirely in the dark. It’s a case of trying to be cool, of sacrificing coherence for that coolness. Generally, when one of these dimensions is in question, the other has to be very firm. Take something like the matrix; we are unsure of what is real and what is not, but the villains and the good guys are abundantly clear. It gives us something solid to hang onto, someone to cheer for, and someone to be afraid of us in this ominous and uncertain world.