The Ambiguous Author and the End of All Meaning
What it means to write with purpose.
Some suggest profundity in the unclear ending—as if ambiguity is its own reward. This recommendation, while enticing to the Author unsure of his Premise, leads to an ultimately forgettable product. The shroud of uncertainty allows one to dodge the challenging work of deep analytical thinking.
When you encounter this siren of meaninglessness, cover your ears. For what is the purpose of being pointless?
Finding The Author's Intent
Whether happened upon by coincidence or the result of concentrated effort, meaningful intent drives the completion of a narrative. Inspiration, while often the genesis of creativity, is fleeting. To be inspired is to give us a glimpse at our true nature—to drive us in the direction of fulfilling our heart's intent.
Even when we don't realize we are doing it.
I wouldn't put a couple of lines of dialogue or an idea for an action scene on the same level as a writer having something they want to say, but I would put it this way: Some writers feel inspired to write because of something they want to say; others feel inspired by something they want to explore.
You write from your personal subjective perspective. Your Audience appreciates your work from an objective point-of-view. The exploration process you refer to is a subjective attempt to find objectivity. It is impossible to solve an objective problem with a subjective point-of-view.
And yet, that is what every single Author does when he writes without knowing his Premise.
Every single Author since the beginning of time.
The Dramatica theory of story allows an Author to step outside of himself--immediately and without the reliance of time to separate him from his work. With Dramatica, the Author observes his work from an objective point-of-view. He sees what his story looks like from a dispassionate standpoint.
He sees his own mind from afar.
Only from without can one ascertain the true meaning and purpose of within.
The Irony of Not Being Ironic
There's a book I quite like called Secrets of Story by Matt Bird which is almost entirely focused on the importance of irony in drama (e.g., "At the end of Alien, the only way for Ripley to survive is to destroy her ship – the very thing meant to help her survive in space"). One of the more interesting points he makes is that it's often important that the Audience not come away knowing the ultimate answer in a definitive way to the thematic question – that they feel at least a little unsettled so that they keep pondering the events of the movie rather than simply file them away. I think you alluded to this with a couple of movies (perhaps Moonlight was your example?)
No, I'm all for narratives and complete arguments and knowing what is being said with a story. That's why the name—Narrative First.
From 1994 until 2013 I worked on countless animated productions where those in charge didn't have an answer to the question, What is this all about? They would hide behind "Trust the process," and we would pay dearly in unreasonable overtime requests to facilitate their uncertainty. That approach may work for the solo novelist; it's a nightmare for any sort of collaborative work.
And that includes the Author's collaboration with his Audience.
Fulfilling their Trust in You
An Audience reaches out for your story in search of something they can't find in their own lives—meaning. Knowing that one man's freedom fighter is another woman's terrorist grants us the appreciation that there can be no meaning without objectivity. And we can't be objective about our subjective experience.
Except in a story.
Life is therefore meaningless without a story.
Furthermore, this juxtaposition only exists in complete stories—stories that manage to communicate their message without falling into ambiguity.
Irony and ambiguity can be powerful tools in storytelling, though the latter is perhaps less likely to be the outcome of a fully-formed Dramatica storyform?
Ambiguity is the presence of two or more storyforms within the same context, with one—or all of them—purposefully incomplete as to their meaning. To be ambiguous is to be open to interpretation—to be open to different purposes. A storyform is one meaning. As we'll see, an Author can leave out parts of a storyform as long as the original intent remains clear. The Audience craves that meaning they can't find in their own lives.
Irony is the juxtaposition of positive and negative values within a single and complete storyform.
It's ironic that Bruce Wayne has to become the villain to save Gotham in The Dark Knight. It's ironic that Robert Angiers has to die himself to reveal the secret of the Transported Man trick in The Prestige. Both films sport bitter endings within the context of a single storyform.
Unless purposefully deceiving an Audience with something incontrovertible, an Author always seeks at least one single and complete storyform with their work.
Ambiguity is a failure on the Author's part to project a complete and meaningful storyform. This doesn't mean one needs to communicate the entirety of the storyform—just enough to ensure a single interpretation.
And this is what happened with Moonlight.
The Responsibility of Ambiguity
Moonlight left out an entire structural Act as a means of manipulating the Audience into becoming a part of the story. The essential argument regarding rejection and acceptance rings loud and clear without this missing piece. Its absence only amplified the story's Premise by drawing the Audience into the discussion—it didn't muddle the story's message.
Bird, like many, conflates ambiguity with irony because he lacks the language to tease apart the two concepts. The Dramatica theory of story makes this confusion a thing of the past.
The Meaning of Ambiguity
A decade after the original release of Inception in 2009, people continue to argue over totems and wedding rings. Was Cobb still dreaming at the end? Or did he somehow find a way to return home?
Or was it somehow both?
Some view the final sequence of the film as evidence of an ambiguous ending. Many in the Audience interpret the cut on the spinning top indicative of Nolan wanting to leave the movie "open-ended." Indeed, he meant never to answer the question of reality—but is that proof of an ambiguous ending? It's certainly not ironic. But what if the ambiguity was the meaning?
The official storyform for Inception found in Subtext identifies Self-awareness as Cobb's ultimate solution. In Dramatica, the narrative Element of Self-aware is defined as couching everything from one's point-of-view. Instead of looking outside for answers, we look from within our own perspective.
Appreciating Self-aware as the film's ending point, we know the meaning of Inception to lie in Cobb's accepting his perception as reality—regardless of whether or not he's dreaming. The ambiguity is part of the argument: self-perception (or deception) is the way out.
Nolan himself confirms this interpretation in his 2015 commencement address to Princeton University:
"The way the end of that film worked, Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Cobb – he was off with his kids, he was in his own subjective reality," said Nolan. "He didn't really care any more, and that makes a statement: perhaps, all levels of reality are valid."
More than a statement—an argument for self-appreciation as a valid method for achieving peace and fulfillment.
Filmmakers and writers do not seek out ambiguity for ambiguity's sake--they seek to grant meaning. And the Dramatica storyform shines a light on their purpose.
And the meaning of something as amorphous as irony.
The Meaning of Irony
Bird's point about Ripley in Aliens is interesting. I would ask, what is the meaning behind it? Was the Author explicitly trying to say something about getting rid of something that is of high self-worth? And if so, where are more examples of this throughout the narrative?
Is it really just this: ¯\(ツ)/¯
Or is it an isolated example where the critic employs reductive thinking to prove an ill-supported claim? Within such a narrow field of vision, everything can mean everything—or everything can say nothing.
The complexity of Dramatica is such that you can't cherry-pick bits of narrative and hope to find meaning in them. Real meaning is located within the appreciation of the totality of our contextual experience.
Meaning is writing with purpose.
Anyway, it made me think of three outcomes I often experience with a book or movie:
- The Author made what they wanted me to think explicit (e.g., Whiplash)
- The Author intentionally wants me to feel an uncertainty about the right answer (e.g., Captain America: Civil War and every Christopher Nolan movie except Batman Begins and The Dark Knight)
- The Author has no fucking clue what they're trying to say (e.g., Batman v. Superman)
Memento, The Prestige, and Inception all possess very clear and very strong storyforms. They don't fit in your second category. Christopher Nolan is the exact opposite of ambiguity when it comes to the central dramatic argument of his films. The explicit intent of his storytelling actually lands him in your first category.
The third category is just funny.
The only filmmakers I know that perhaps fit in the second would be Terrence Malick or Paul Thomas Anderson. Maybe even Quentin Tarantino. But even then, the intent is less about being ambiguous, and more about focusing on the experience over meaning.
I love Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. The experience, particularly in a theater, is phenomenal. I will never know the "answer" to that film, and yet I'll watch it several times over again before I die. That unsettled unknowing feeling exists because that was his intent—he wasn't trying to argue a particular point-of-view. Contrast that with his film, The Hidden Life. The trailer spells out the film's purpose in no uncertain terms: to argue the importance of meeting the tyranny of your day.
What you refer to as ambiguity might be something else, something closer to what you might consider irony. That said, irony only works when in support of a grander argument.
Purpose in the Seemingly Undefinable
When writing from Premise, an Author seeks to prove the appropriateness of a course of action. Communicating this dramatic argument is the purpose of his story.
He offers two clues as to the eventual result of engaging in the Premise: one logistical, one emotional. The Dramatica theory of story recognizes the former as the Story Outcome and the latter as the Story Judgment. The Story Outcome determines Success or Failure; the Story Judgement assesses whether that Success or Failure was Good or Bad.
What you refer to as ambiguity might be your recognition of a Story Outcome of Success and a Story Judgment of Bad. These stories of Personal Tragedy often leave one quite unsettled—as we end up feeling "bad" about our "success." This is what you're referring to with the idea that Nolan "intentionally wants me to feel uncertain about the right answer." The Dark Knight, Memento, and The Prestige all end in Personal Tragedy.
The uncertainty of Inception actually lies in the unsettling circumstances of feeling "good" about falling into our subjective experience. We're taught from birth that objectivity reigns supreme—that the rational always supersedes the emotional. Inception argues the opposite—and it does so by illustrating Cobb's dive into subjective reality a Triumph.
This triumphant ending is yet another reason why people continue to debate the conclusion: they find it difficult to accept an argument that runs counter to everything they believe.
Cobb succeeds by choosing his self-awareness over everything else. He gives up his awareness of the spinning top, turning away from the certainty of reality.
This works excellent for Cobb—and for many others struggling to resolve personal issues of guilt—but it's no bueño for Authors struggling to write a meaningful story. For them, a balance between the subjective and objective holds the key to resolving the inequity of the unrealized story.
Ambiguity is the result of failing to think deeply enough about a story. Irony is the juxtaposition of Storypoints intended to nudge the Audience out of their preconceptions.
A great story is a balance between the objective and subjective—a chance to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless experience.