The Line of Ambiguity

Spenser Milo June 26, 2012 3
The Line of Ambiguity

How far does ambiguity go in storytelling to where it’s not annoying for the audience? Well, in this day and age, that’s a very tough question. Today’s audiences want things spelled out to them, want things told and presented like Doc Brown’s chalkboard of timelines in Back to the Future II. Granted, majority of the time and especially with that Back to the Future II scene, these things should be presented to the audience cause things can get confusing and maybe feel cheap. But where does that line of immediate explanation and satisfying question end up?

When I say “satisfying question” I mean a question that an audience member doesn’t even deem a question. Recently, Mad Men’s fifth season closed out (spoiler alert!) with Don Draper being asked if he was alone. He looked at the young gal asking him the question and the scene ended. What’s significant about this scene is that what happens next is open ended but a lot of viewers seriously believe that Don made a decision to either cheat on his wife or not cheat on her.
Now, let’s compare that scene to another famous television show called The Sopranos. The infamous finale scene ends right before its shown whether or not the show’s main character is offed or not. Audiences flipped the fuck out after this occurred, but nobody did the same with Don Draper. Obviously there are significant differences between both scenes but the fact remains the same: They’re both open ended questions.

It’s possible that audiences don’t care that much about certain questions (like the Mad Men question) because they believe they have the answer anyway. With the movie Inception, the end is left up in the air and no audience backlash occurred on the beast known as The Internet. On the other hand, The Sopranosending caused people to flip the fuck out, like with the recent movie Prometheus. Is it possible that audiences only give a shit about such questions when there is little to no evidence given to them about answers? Well, yes. Duh. The best thing though that viewers most likely don’t truly consider, is that no matter what they say happened at the end of Inception or at the end of The Sopranos, they can’t be wrong. Hell, I can say right now that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character pulled his pants down, made a bologna sandwich, and then played Scrabble for the rest of his life at the end of Inception and nobody can prove me wrong!

Because it’s entirely impossible for someone to talk about Prometheus and not mention the television show Lost due to contracts that are pop-culture, something that almost deserves its own little article. The show has unfortunately become the go-to thing to point at when answers aren’t given in some sort of medium. But the truth is that Lost did answer many, many questions during its run. Actually, it answered nearly all of them! It just never told the audience that cause the show assumed people could fill in the blanks. It let the audience think and theorize, which is also found withinPrometheusThe Matrix movies became a laughing stock once a character called The Architect was introduced, a person who literally sat down with Neo and just answered questions about everything. After this, nobody gave a shit about The Matrix cause it frustrated people to know every little thing about the series in such a non-organic way. Sometimes the imagination does a much better job at satisfying yourself than it does to satisfying an entire room of fans. It becomes a gamble for storytellers to either show you what’s behind the curtain, or let you just simply guess what’s behind the curtain. The real idea is to try and make you not even notice that you’re guessing.

So do audiences want answers given to them if they’re frustrated but not too much cause that’ll just destroy everything, or do they like to think they know what the hell is going on with something they enjoy? If so, how much do they need to jump off of so they’re not confused? That line of ambiguity is getting very, very small and, well, ambiguous itself.


  1. Gibson November 27, 2012 at 3:19 PM - Reply

    “But the truth is that Lost did answer many, many questions during its run. Actually, it answered nearly all of them!” => No, it did not

    “It let the audience think and theorize” => No, it dit not

    “which is also found within Prometheus.” => No, it isn’t

    You’re welcome.

    • OffyMichaeltravers November 27, 2012 at 6:43 PM - Reply

      Just because it went over your head, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t answer things.

    • Yes, Lost did. November 27, 2012 at 10:32 PM - Reply

      What’s my name?

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