Fluid Imaginalphabet: A is for Ambiguity

Ambiguity is one of the many antagonists you’ll have to face in your development as a creative writer. You can think of it as an evil fairy that sits on your shoulder, reads your sentence-in-progress, and tells you, “Yes, don’t worry, you’ve said it the best you could. There’s no better phrase to describe that feeling and no better image to convey that idea. Maybe you didn’t get it exactly right, but don’t worry, you came as close as you could, and you should be happy. Time to move on to the next sentence.”

If you want to improve your writing, you have to do everything you can to shut that evil fucker up. Because ambiguity doesn’t want you to succeed as a writer; it only wants you to get to the end, get to the end!

Unfortunately, if you’re striving to get to the end rather than striving to use the right word at the right time, then you’re not really much of a writer.

This is not to say that ambiguity doesn’t have its place in literature. It absolutely does. But its place comes at a higher level than the sentence. You can be ambiguous when it comes to plot and character. You can be ambiguous when it comes to theme.

But when it comes to the words you use, to the metaphors you create, to the sentence-by-sentence experience of your text, ambiguity has no place at all. You can use words and sentences to create ambiguity, but within the words, within the sentences, you must be as exact as possible.

Instead of writing that the door is red, you need to describe what kind of red it is. Instead of writing that your character looks angry, you need to show us how she looks angry. Words like “red” and “angry” don’t actually do anything. At most, they give us a range of meanings, but they don’t actually mean anything in and of themselves. They are, in a word, ambiguous.

“Red” and “angry” are the kind of words about which the evil fairy says, “Don’t worry. Everyone knows what red is, what angry looks like. You can move on to the next sentence now.”

The trick to avoiding ambiguity’s false prompts of self-satisfaction is to recognize its soothing words for what they are: cowardice.

Ambiguity comes from writers not being brave enough to push through the crowd of words that gather around the center of what they’re actually trying to say. And when that evil fairy sees all of those false words clawing out at you, crying “Pick me! Pick me!”, it tells you that you’ve gone far enough, and says, “What’s the point in soldiering on when any of these words will do?”

But it’s all just a lie.

You haven’t reached your goal yet. You can still see, just beyond all those crowding and crying words, the lightning strike at the true center of your idea. You haven’t reached it yet, and you know it because you haven’t felt the wonder of its power surging through your mind, the glorious sensation that we all, as writers, strive for, the sensation that tells you, “Yes, I’ve got it!”

Instead, all you have is a voice — not a sensation, but a voice — telling you that this word or that word is good enough.

Be brave in the face of that voice. Tell it to shut the fuck up. And then turn your back on it and soldier on, not letting up until you capture the lightning.