The Argument for Ambiguity in Your Story

Celeste Ng

To create a story that feels as if it could leave the page: That’s the dream of many writers. But to pull it off means leaving space for the reader. Celeste Ng, author of the newly released Everything I Never Told You, explains:

… you need to leave a few unmapped places so the characters can step beyond the boundaries you’ve sketched, a few strings untied so that the puppets can move freely without your hand. In other words, you need a little ambiguity: a space, however small, for the reader to fit into the piece. A story needs a little room for the reader to interpret, to bring in his or her own perceptions and conceptions.

But, you might ask, what is the difference between meaningful ambiguity and authorial indecision? Read Ng’s full essay at Glimmer Train to find out.

For more on writing craft & technique:

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

Join the conversation

2 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
2 Comment authors
jshearSandra D Recent comment authors

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Sandra D
Sandra D

thank you. Yes some freedom for the reader to put in missing pieces allows space for the imagination. The imagination is why people read, or watch movies or anything.
I went back and read the beginning of the Gunslinger by Stephen King to see how Roland was initially detailed as to me he becomes an epic character of ruggedness. But the details are sparse but the details that are used are all carefully chosen to do a lot of work in painting the picture.


Disclaimer: I have not yet read the full essay. That said, I was immediately reminded by Celeste’s “unmapped spaces” of Hemingway’s line about a character’s inferred past. In important respects the ideas are the same, but not quite. When the writer confronts the question of what will the character do next, Hemingway draws on the character’s experience, while Celeste draws on the character’s impulses. Experience can be explained; impulses are often surprising, and leave strings untied. No doubt, at some level, the two writers are talking about the same thing.