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Monday, 31 October 2011

Stuart's Daily Word Spot: Ambiguity or uncertainty?

"Would you take offense if I had the gall...Image via Wikipedia
Ambiguity or uncertainty?
Ambiguity: noun - hesitation, doubt or uncertainty about your course; something that can be understood in more than one way; an uncertainty; double meaning; an expression having more than one meaning.

Uncertainty: noun - being uncertain; doubtfulness, hesitation or irresolution; a point of doubt; something of which the outcome is uncertain;

As you can see, these two words are interchangeable in many cases. However, I'm concerned here with their application to writing. An author can use ambiguity to express a dilemma experienced by a character. He can describe events, emotions and actions in terms that leave the reader feeling uncertain. And both of these techniques are valid. What a good writer will avoid, however, is the use of ambiguity to excuse his own uncertainty about elements of his story or characterisation. Such ambiguity is quickly seen for the uncertainty it is in reality and a reader thus alerted will then have difficulty in continuing to trust the honesty of the writer. Once you've lost a reader's trust, you've almost certainly lost a reader.
So, if you're portraying ambiguity, make sure your own lack of resolution is not the cause and that you display doubt in a way that makes it clear who or what is uncertain. Ambiguity is a subtle quality in writing and needs careful handling if it is to be understood for what it is.

'Martha's eyes grew soft and wide every time she saw Harry, but her hands clenched into tight fists as he approached.' 
Martha's feelings for Harry are ambiguous, but it is clear the writer intended this and there is no sign of uncertainty from the author.

'Brian was determined as he drew the gun from the holster; this was the chance he'd dreamed of for so long. He pointed it through the gap in the fence, but, suddenly, he wondered whether he should actually kill his rival.' 
This displays more uncertainty on the part of the writer than the potential killer. In particular, that give-away 'suddenly' suggests the author rather than the character is uncertain about what should happen. The first sentence makes it clear the character is set on doing the deed and it is only in the second sentence that the writer has had some doubts about whether he should allow his character to kill at this time.

'Brian drew the gun from its holster without hesitation and aimed it through the gap in the fence. As his intended victim wandered into view, and turned her face to him, he discovered his hand was shaking.'
Here it is the character who is uncertain and the writer has employed ambiguity to give more depth to the story.

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