Creating Ambiguity

Why is ambiguity missing from our culture? In films and television, writers and directors feel it necessary to spell out every action, motivation, and history of every major character on screen. Sure, a character’s backstory might be interesting, but a mystery can be just as compelling. “Hollywood” is taking away our fascinating fear of the unknown so that they can provide cheap twists and shocking revelations within the first season of a television show, or the first hour of a movie.

The enduring interest of a character I can’t quite comprehend will always be more interesting to me than a character with a tragic backstory. Their motivations should be somewhat murky, their history should not be completely open for everyone and their actions should be sometimes confusing for the audience. This is especially true of villains. Too much history and they become sympathetic and no longer intimidating. If we know their exact motivations, then they become predictable. And if their actions are completely explainable, then we lose any interesting mystery.

Perhaps the reason why ambiguity is so fearsome is that it is so difficult to handle. If too many questions are raised, then the creators are left with handfuls of frayed strings to try and cleanly knot together. An obvious example is Lost, which dealt with too many questions that most viewers weren’t satisfied being left without answers. But there are many examples where it can work incredibly. My personal favorite is Slade, from Teen Titans, and I am not even kidding. The identity of Slade was a prevailing mystery throughout the first two seasons of Teen Titans and it created a sinister air to a character that was already intimidating.

Using these two examples, a rudimentary framework for an interesting mystery can be created. The rules, as I see them, are:
1. Ambiguity works better on characters than on plot.
2. Plot based mysteries should be given answers. (Answers can lead to more question, though.)
3. A character’s mystery can remain unanswered.
4. If a character’s mystery interacts with a plot mystery, then the character mystery should be answered, so that rule 2 is not violated.
5. Don’t create too many plot mysteries that must be answered by the end, otherwise end up with an ugly knot for an end.
6. Plot mysteries should be staggered and ones should be answered while others are being investigated or are staring up.
7. Character mysteries can be continuous and grow on one another. (Though, if there are too many mysteries for a character, it can have the same problems as a plot mystery.)

We shouldn’t be afraid to use this powerful tool in our creative endeavors, but we should also be wary of the messes it can make. I will continue to believe that “Hollywood” is making huge mistakes by ignoring this device and I will continue to view it this way until I start seeing interesting ambiguity being used in mainstream productions.

Thomas Degroat

A student majoring in Neuroscience, art is a second passion to him. He is particularly fond of analyzing film, theater, television, and literature. If he had not found love within science, he would most assuredly be a Comparative Literature major. His review inspirations are Lindsay Ellis, Rantasmo, and Chris Stuckman.

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