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Ambiguity as a Tool

May 5, 2011

Do you know what’s really, really scary?

Uncertainty.

As you all know, I am a huge fan of fantasy. However, I also love the “fantastic.” Although the most famous examples (think Edgar Allan Poe and Algernon Blackwood) are from the Romantic era, it really straddles genre boundaries. It’s not quite speculative fiction in the sense that fantasy, sci-fi, and horror are speculative, because the reader is never 100% sure whether or not anything supernatural is going on. In fact, as soon as you know one way or the other that the strange events either are or are not supernatural, it no longer counts as truly “fantastic.” That ambiguity forms its very definition.

And that ambiguity is terrifying.

We’re afraid of the dark because we don’t know what lurks within it. These stories are the literary equivalent of crouching by a fire in the depths of the night. You can see just enough to suspect something’s out there. But you’re not sure. And even if there is something, you don’t know what it is. With such limited information, you can’t act; you can only watch, and wait, paralyzed by anxiety and self-doubt.

Left to our own devices, we come up with uniquely frightening things. Think about the Boggart in Harry Potter. It never had a shape of its own; it became whatever you feared most, and that was the source of its power. No monster is as frightening as that which we craft for ourselves.

Obviously, too much ambiguity isn’t ideal; readers will get frustrated, and frustrated readers don’t tend to hang around long. But… if you can provide enough detail to offer a hint of the shape in the shadows, while leaving the reader to fill in the specifics with their own imaginings and fears, well…

 You’ll have something pretty scary and pretty suspenseful on your hands.

-Arvik

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One comment

  1. Good post, as always. The writer’s group I belong to just had a discussion on setting and description and what you say here, holds true for other types of fiction, too. As in, just give the reader enough to use their own imagination and don’t kill the story with too much. A hundred years ago books needed lots of description because the reader’s world was so narrow. But now with the world at our typing fingertips, we only need to be reminded, and left to our own imaginings. And like you said, that can be a lot scarier.



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