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An Argument for Ambiguity

One of my favorite reads over the last few years remains Tosca Lee’s Demon: A Memoir. Apart from Tosca’s stellar writing and her unique spin on the demon v. man genre, I personally liked the ambiguous ending. By that, I don’t mean that the conclusion came off as intentionally vague or unfinished. I thought Demon ended perfectly with Clay, the protagonist, pondering his life and the choices that lay before him. And that’s where Tosca Lee left the reader — to fill in our own blanks.

Apparently, the ending of Demon piqued the interest of her readers so much that Tosca recently posted a video (along with spoiler alerts) speculating What Happened to Clay. I’m guessing it’s a good sign when, after THE END, your readers demand to know more about your characters. And what better way to pique their interest than by leaving them guessing.

Christian fiction is not known for leaving readers guessing. On the contrary, we seem to like wrapping things up and spelling them out. We prefer explanations and clean theological lines, with minimal interpretation required. The trouble is that neither life nor Scripture accommodate such tidy tie-ups.

The Bible (not to mention life) is full of things that leave you scratching your head. Many of its heroes are deeply flawed, and some of its stories are more gray than black or white. Yet despite all this, Christian authors and publishers still appear to eschew loose ends. Even though the Book we esteem contains paradoxes, riddles, moral mind-bogglers, and theological conundrums, somehow, our stories remain remarkably unambiguous.

The argument against ambiguity usually goes like this: Christians have the Truth! The Bible provides answers! So why should our stories be any different? Indeed, Jesus came to bring light into the darkness, not muddy things up. Shouldn’t Christian fiction do the same? It’s a fair question. But let me offer this rebuttal.

The biblical worldview does not eliminate mystery; in fact, it magnifies it. There is a mistaken assumption (maybe even an outright lie) that being a believer means having all the answers. The apostle Paul famously wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Cor. 13:12). The New Living Translation puts it this way:

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.

According to Scripture, embracing the Truth does not mean possessing all the answers. On the contrary, “Now we see things imperfectly.” Mysteries remain. There are oddities, enigmas, and contradictions. Bad guys appear good, and good guys suffer evil. The innocent are abused, and the unjust abuse them. Which is why Christians anticipate a Day when “we will see things with perfect clarity,” a Day when “God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ” (Rom. 2:16).  That day is not now. Here, there are “secrets.” Yes, being a Christian means knowing the Truth. But knowing the Truth doesn’t mean having all the answers.

By keeping ambiguity out of our novels, Christians unintentionally frame a world that lacks mystery and depict a God who is quite predictable. When our heroes always win and our villains always lose, when Christians always prevail and their Adversary always gets the shaft, something is terribly askew. It’s not true in life, so why is it true in our stories? By seeking to scrub our novels of all gray areas we potentially make them unbiblical.

Which brings me back to Clay. Had Tosca Lee spelled out what happened to her protag, I would not have spent time reflecting upon his predicament or weighing the circumstances of his decision. It was the uncertainty, the mystery of his will, that niggled into my psyche and brought the story to life. It was not knowing the answer that made me seek it all the more.

So why don’t more Christian authors employ ambiguity?

Perhaps our inability to tolerate ambiguity is evidence that our novels are not very biblical. Maybe we are working too hard to scrub the gray from our stories, when keeping the “mirror” dim is the most “Christian” thing we can do.

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{ 24 comments… add one }
  • Nicole June 23, 2010, 7:22 AM

    Mike, you’re partially correct. This is usually the case with category romance which I know you don’t read. I’d put the percentages somewhere around 75% non-ambiguous, 25% left to the imagination or “unconfirmed” conclusions. I’ve read plenty of ambiguous endings in CBA fiction. I get your point, and it’s a valuable one, but I think it’s kind of a sweeping generalization.

    • Mike Duran June 23, 2010, 7:06 PM

      You may be right, Nicole. I don’t read extensively in the Christian fiction genre. My observation applies to the percentage of books I have read. There’s just not a whole lot of wiggle room for different resolutions. Thanks for your comments!

  • Mark June 23, 2010, 10:03 AM

    Life is full of mystery. And, you’re right, the Bible doesn’t provide all the answers.

    However, I got to fiction to escape from real life. Yes, if I can learn something from my fiction to apply to life, I won’t complain. However, I like my stories wrapped up in a nice, neat bow at the end. It gives me a sense of completition. Too many of the open ended endings I’ve seen just feel like the creator of the piece was too lazy to truly wrap things up. (Joss Whedon, I’m looking directly at you!)

  • David James June 23, 2010, 11:43 AM

    I fully agree with you, Mike. There are waaaay too many “Christian” “good guys” winning over the “Sinner” “bad guys” all the time in a tidy wrap-up at the end of the “Christian” “novel”. There are a few noticeable exceptions, but the reason they are so noticeable is because of the rarity. Demon has been sitting on my shelf for a few months now along with some other unread novels I’m working my way through. What you’ve had to say about it whets my appetite even more. Thanks for this blog entry as it was a most needed read for me today! 🙂

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller June 23, 2010, 5:39 PM

    I have to agree with Nicole. I think the romances are less ambiguous, but isn’t that a required motif? But for other novels, I don’t think “neatly tied up” is the expected so much any more. Granted, I don’t read a lot of Christian fiction apart from speculative, but The Lost Mission wasn’t neatly tied up, Jeffrey Overstreet’s Raven’s Ladder wasn’t. Certainly not Jill Williamson’s By Darkness Hid. I could go on.

    I think “ambiguity” is an intriguing device—not necessary for quality storytelling, but also not totally neglected by Christian writers. (And I’m wondering if you might not be ascribing spiritual reasons behind a previously sparse use of it when actually its lack was more reflective of a level of craft.)


    • Mike Duran June 23, 2010, 7:25 PM

      Becky, since romance comprises such a large swath of Christian fiction (75% or more?) and is pretty formulaic, then it isn’t a stretch to portray “most” Christian fiction as lacking ambiguity. But like I said to Nicole, I am not immersed in the genre, so you’re probably right about there being more “open-ended” novels out there. However, I’m guessing that the percentage of ambiguous endings in Christian lit (like Clay remaining unresolved) is still fairly small. Blessings!

    • David James June 23, 2010, 8:30 PM

      Rebecca, I can’t speak for the other two as I am not familiar with them, but for Jill Williamson’s “By Darkness Hid”, that book is Book 1 of a series, so it by definition would NOT have been “neatly tied up” at the end since there is obviously more to come, and I say that regardless of how the series actually WILL end. If either or both of the other two are part of a series as well, then why would you expect them to be neatly wrapped up? 😉

      And to be sure, ambiguity only works if you do it right. Don’t write a story as if you’re in the middle of another story and then you don’t even finish that story. That kind of ambiguity fans don’t like. Ambiguity that people like is where the plot lines of a story is wrapped up, but the character growth isn’t and you want more of that character. Whether you get more or not is up to the author.

      It’s like with a Tom Clancy novel – to use a non-spec author. He throws a bunch of stuff out there for plot and story and has a way of tying up a bunch of things – typically the things that are essential to the telling of the story – yet for some of the characters, you don’t know just how this will effect them and that’s why he was able to create a whole series of Jack Ryan novels as well as a couple of prequels for his two main characters: Jack Ryan and Mr. Clark. And even though you were fairly clear with Jack Ryan from the beginning and you got to see him grow gradually over the course of the novels, Mr. Clark was the character that continued to surprise as the series progressed and proved to be a great companion character for Jack Ryan. Even though you knew certain things to expect from a Tom Clancy novel, he knew just how to keep the ambiguity up to where one just wanted more and more of seeing the things the Jack Ryan character would find himself in and how he’d respond, and then see just how Mr. Clark would fit into things with each novel. Absolute genius!

      • Jessica Thomas June 24, 2010, 9:35 AM

        “Ambiguity that people like is where the plot lines of a story is wrapped up, but the character growth isn’t and you want more of that character. Whether you get more or not is up to the author.”

        Good point. You said what I was thinking but didn’t know how to articulate. I don’t enjoy (and have no plans of writing) an ending that cuts of abruptly and leaves me feeling sad, ‘unfullfilled’, hopeless, or any other negative emotion. I tagged an epilogue onto my novel to avoid just that. I could tell my readers were left wanting. I had created this dreary world but had not provided evidence that anyone could rise above it or be happy in it. Not an impression I want to leave anyone with.

        As you said, hopefully I tied up the plot lines while maintaining interest in my character. (A couple people have asked me if there will be a sequel; egads I can’t imagine it right now, but if they want more of my character, that’s a good thing.)

        • David James June 24, 2010, 6:12 PM

          Jessica said:

          “I don’t enjoy (and have no plans of writing) an ending that cuts of abruptly and leaves me feeling sad, ‘unfullfilled’, hopeless, or any other negative emotion. I tagged an epilogue onto my novel to avoid just that. I could tell my readers were left wanting. I had created this dreary world but had not provided evidence that anyone could rise above it or be happy in it.”

          You see, for me that just sounds fake. Tacking on a “happy ending” just to have one. That always leaves a nasty taste in my mouth. Kinda’ like when I read Larry Burkett’s “The Illuminati” and had enjoyed it thoroughly right up to the end when, all of a sudden, after EVERYTHING the characters had been through – with the nation and world changing events – that it was all JUST A TEST FROM GOD???!!! And everything’s BACK TO NORMAL???!!!


          That was an utterly HORRIBLE ending that I personally felt he just tacked on at the end for the very reasons you described tacking on for your story.

          If the story is a dreary world and the ending is ambiguous because of it, then for GOD’S SAKE, LEAVE IT ALONE!! If people want more of the characters, then you can write a sequel where things get better if you want, or a whole friggin’ series that leads up to the wonderful ending like Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins did, but for the first one, you really shouldn’t do that. It disrespects the intelligence of the reader.

          It’s one of the reasons I love early Stephen King and Anne Rice. They’ve both evolved since then, and have done well with the changes they’ve made in their writing styles, but that early stuff of both of them left the readers with ambiguous endings, and a dreary place, and they JUST ENDED THE STORY.


          If they had tried to “make things right”, then they probably wouldn’t have been as successful as they were and Anne Rice wouldn’t have had a successful Vampire series and Stephen King wouldn’t have been able to complete his Dark Tower series and bring all the various novels that directly tied in to it to an awesome conclusion with those last three books of the series. And even then he left it ambiguous. Kinda’ circular actually in a bizarre way.

          But that’s my opinion. Sorry, Mike, if I’ve gone past the point you were trying to make with things. 😉

          • Kaci June 24, 2010, 6:22 PM

            Ew, I wouldn’t have liked that ending, either.

            Agreed – never force it. But I still don’t care to get to the end of the book and go “All that…for nothing?”

          • Mike Duran June 24, 2010, 6:53 PM

            Actually, I like your passion, David. Rock on! I agree with Jessica’s point of not leaving plotlines unresolved. In this way, some ambiguity is the result of poor craft and inattentiveness on the part of the writer. This is BAD AMBIGUITY. But I do agree with you about not tacking on a happy ending just to avoid ANY AMBIGUITY.

            • David James June 24, 2010, 8:45 PM

              Thanks, Mike! I appreciate that! 😀

              • Jessica Thomas June 25, 2010, 7:27 AM

                David, well you just might have to read it and then see what you think 😉

                I have to get it published first though.

                My protag isn’t a Christian, so there’s no “God was just testing me” at the end. I felt I needed to further her spiritual journey just a bit more to indicate where her transformation was leading.

                That’s what I mean about not leaving the reader in the dreary world I’d created…I wanted to make sure the story, the entire story was pointing in the right direction. That’s what I mean as far as…I don’t intend to write a story that leaves the reader questioning whether or not there is meaning in this life, or whether or not God is really in control. I don’t see the point of that. Life gives us enough opportunities to enter into a crisis of faith.

                We are probably actually in agreement. Semantics get in the way sometimes. (p.s. I’m confident my craft is better honed than LaHaye and Jenkins, tho they’ve no doubt brought loads more people to Christ than me…) (p.s.s. You got to the end of one of their books? 😉 Kidding sort of. I made it to the end of #1 and to around page 5 of #2 before the editor in me had to quit. Guess God didn’t have me in mind when He inspired them to write the series.)

          • Jessica Thomas June 25, 2010, 7:31 AM

            David, Oops, I misread, I thought you were dissing the end of the Left Behind series. Well, now you know my opinion of their writing!! 😀

  • A. J. Walker June 23, 2010, 8:10 PM

    Mike, I like to read a story for the story. Stories have beginnings, middle and endings. It’s natural to assume the person who tells or writes a story is going somewhere with it, I hate to get to the end of a story and not have gotten to its conclusion or not really gotten anywhere at all.

    As in:”You said all these words (or written all of these words) and exactly what was it you were trying to say again?”

    Story telling (whether verbal or written) is a form of communication and the best communicators have a point (or several) they are trying to convey to the audience. No point and I wonder what they were really trying to say or did they lose “it” somewhere along the way and waste my time in listening/reading?

    • Mike Duran June 24, 2010, 5:40 AM

      Thanks for your comments, A.J. I’m not arguing that there shouldn’t be a point, or that ambiguity is artsy, but that the point can sometimes be that of confliction, uncertainty, or duality. The Apostle with Robert Duvall is a great example. The preacher man in the film was a foul, violent, womanizing individual who appeared to sincerely love God. By the end of the movie, we are unclear whether he is a sinner or a saint. And I think that is the point of the film — there is often a fine line between sinner and saint, and we are not privy to where that line is drawn. My assertion in this piece is that the current Christian fiction market would not allow such ambiguity, especially as it pertains to sinners and saints. Appreciate your thoughts!

  • SR June 24, 2010, 4:49 AM

    there is a descrepancy between christians claiming to know the truth and not writing about it in their novels. If christian fiction is supposed to refelct christian beliefs then it should provide more answers than ambiguity.

    • Mike Duran June 24, 2010, 6:00 AM

      SR, let me answer with a story from Scripture. In the Book of Job, God allows Satan to absolutely devastate this man of God, wipe out his family, possessions, and health. After 30 some chapters of philosophical rambling, God shows up and does not answer a single question posed by Job or Job’s accusers. In fact, God challenges Job: “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me” (Job 38:3).

      While Job received back everything he lost, and more, there is never resolution as to why God allowed him to endure such loss and suffering. In the end, it’s a lesson about God’s sovereignty and supremacy, and our need to simply trust him. Is this ambiguous or is this the Truth?

      Like it or not, knowing the Truth is not necessarily possessing a point-by-point refutation or explanation of all evils and problems. Oftentimes, it is part of a larger revelation: that God will right wrongs, that He can be trusted to sort things out. But this “answer” can be potentially “gray,” especially for people who want point-by-point resolutions for everything.

      • Kaci June 24, 2010, 3:49 PM

        You could also throw Jonah into that lump. The book quite literally ends with a question. Acts, also, lacks a “proper” ending.

        • Kaci June 24, 2010, 3:59 PM

          Apologies for the double-comment.

          Moreover, I think, too, there’s a difference between ‘ambiguous’ (which, in some ways, does cheat the reader) and ending on a dissonance. I happen to prefer bitter-sweet, dissonant endings. Often, those who want “clear” endings really want “happy” endings (I say this because I have yet to hear such people enjoy ‘sad’ endings). I say this also because, while I don’t particularly care for ‘happy’ or ‘positive’ endings where it’s all explained and tidy, I also don’t care for total trainwreck endings that simply leave everyone totally depressed (sorry – but it’s true).

          I do, though, love the -book- ending of Lord of the Rings. And Demon.

          How’s that verse go, Mike? “It is the [right?] of a king to reveal a matter, and the [right?] of God to conceal it.” (It’s a Proverb; I’m butchering it.)

          My guess, though, is that the art’s in the telling.

  • Nicole June 24, 2010, 6:21 AM

    I slightly disagree with your opinion of the conclusion of The Apostle. Yes, you identified his humanity in all of its sin, but his faith was undeniable IMO. I never doubted his faith, his heart after God. His faults were apparent throughout the film, but equally apparent was his love for Jesus. The ambiguity to me came in the question of were we willing to see ourselves in this man.

  • A. J. Walker June 24, 2010, 11:14 AM

    Mike, this is great, I love a good “meeting of the minds” and good natured discussions. So this isn’t an argument as much as a fun debate to me 😀

    I watched The Apostle too long ago to make any kind of coherent assessment at this time but I have recently read the Book of Job.

    I think the whole point of the “story,” as you said, was the sovereignty of God. We have at the beginning the introduction of the MCs (God & Job), the antagonist (Satan), the plot (Job’s testing brought on by Satan at the permission of God), four supporting characters (3 friends and Job’s wife) that discuss all sorts of things before the conclusion of the “story” when God shows up and returns everything.

    The whole point of the “story” (to me at least) is that through it all, Job is tested and his faith remains. We’re told why all of the calamity happened and we follow Job and his wife and friends on an in -depth examination of faith.

    Seems to me even that “story” has a point with the only point of ambiguity is why Job was chosen of all people.

  • Vicki Trujillo June 27, 2010, 7:29 AM

    This is very true. Going through this trial seeing how things really work out in the real world is harsh. God is showing me through this to take refuge in him. Injustice and good guy versus bad guy is not how the true grey is cleaned out. I believe in the final end it will. Trusting in God to see me through is the reality of this world, and his love.

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