Clarity In Writing & The Curse of Reader Assumption

I'm happy to welcome back Dr. John Yeoman of Writer's Village, a writing community dedicated to helping writers succeed. Today he's looking at an important facet of the story-audience connection: reader assumptions.

It is very important that we achieve CLARITY when we write. Is the audience picking up on our exact meaning the way we intend? What viewpoint biases do they apply to what they read? This is a great topic, so please read on for a deeper look!

Are Your Stories Killed by the Curse of Assumption?
by John Yeoman

Would you have misunderstood these opening lines as badly as I did?

‘She cursed her killer Jimmy Choos as she entered the room. The man met her eyes and slipped his Mont Blanc quickly into his pocket.’

Having read too much John le Carré, I assumed that Jimmy Choos was the name of an assassin she’d hired to kill her husband. And a Mont Blanc was a gun, presumably of French design.

My wife got it at once. Of course! This was a style-conscious young woman on a blind date. But I missed it. Why? I’m a reclusive old man.

We can’t always choose our readers. If the reader misunderstands us, our story is lost. And every reader brings to our story their own assumptions.

Try these three ways to avert the Curse of Reader Assumption:

 1. Establish the context of your story at once - unless you want to obscure it.

 Don’t just dump that information on us in the authorial voice, of course. Let the narrator convey it in passing. Here’s a scene from an historical novel, located in London 1598:

‘It was a bright chill morning, the air sharp with the tang of burning apple wood. Mercifully, the rain had abated these past few days, having pelted down relentlessly for several months. No doubt, the farmers were praying now for a good harvest as they bided their time, waiting to sow the fields with what little corn they still possessed. I prayed with them. I had been a farmer once.’

We don’t need to tell the reader that England in 1598 was recovering from three years of rain-induced famine. We’ve suggested it obliquely. and slid in a little information about our character too.

Why might you want to obscure the context?

In China Mieville’s disturbing novel The City & The City the context is initially clear. Or so it seems. A body is found. Detectives gather and chew their nails while they wait for the path report. It’s a re-run of James Patterson. Isn’t it?

No. Ghost-like creatures drift about. The landscape keeps shifting, as if in a dream. Characters freeze until things are back to normal then resume as if nothing had happened. This is an alternative world. The story is a sci-fantasy. Mieville deliberately makes its context - and genre - ambiguous, to unsettle the reader.

2. Keep reminding us of the context.

 Thornton Wilder opens his deliciously satiric novel The Cabbala in a train carriage in Italy circa 1920:

 ‘In one compartment a party drawn from that race that travels most and derives least pleasure from it talked tirelessly of bad hotels, the ladies sitting with their skirts whipped about their ankles to discourage the ascent of fleas.’

 Whenever the travellers’ conversation starts to roam, Wilder reminds us they’re still on a train:

‘In another compartment an adventuress in silver sables leaned one cheek against the shuddering window panes ... In the pause that followed, fragments of conversation from the various corners of the compartment flowed in upon our minds ...’

 Each incident is linked by the term ‘compartment’ so that we never forget the context.

 2. Use ‘stage business’ to keep us in the scene.

 If you can’t remind us of the context with the repetition of a linking word (or phrase), as Wilder does, call our attention continually to props that define the setting. It’s stage business. If a theatrical producer wanted to suggest a Wild West saloon, he might hang an elk head over the door, put a spittoon in the corner and make the characters use it every moment. Suppose our character is chatting in a modern bar. A long dialogue ensues. Break it up!

Have the speakers cradle a glass, order a snack, check the clock, visit the restroom... all the things that people do in a bar.

Use those props continually to ground the reader in the context of the bar.

 3. Keep the continuity going. 

When you use a lot of frame shifts - switches of point of view, flashbacks, flashforwards and the like - it’s particularly important to retain continuity in the context. Otherwise, the reader gets lost. For example, a woman rambling in the country might chance upon a derelict church:

‘This had once been a graveyard. Nettles, briars, thistles taller than a man’s head. Grey stones poked out like stubs of broken teeth. She remembered her father’s funeral...’

The narrator’s mind then flashes back to the funeral. Ten pages later the reader may have lost their place in the story entirely. So bring us back to the graveyard.

‘She wiped the grave dust from her hands and ran from that dead place. Thistles tugged at her dress and briars tripped her feet but she didn’t notice. In her face was a new resolve.’

Now that long digressive flashback has been restored to its context and the story can resume.

Don’t give the reader a chance to misinterpret your story!

It’s not enough to spell out the context in chapter one and forget it thereafter. The reader will forget it too. Maybe they’ll put down our story and not return to it for another month. Or they’re lurching around town in a taxi, an IPad in one hand and their heart in the other. Keep reminding us, page by page, of what the story’s all about.

Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years.

A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at Writers' Village. 

A big thank you to John for tackling this! Clarity is so important, and we have to always remember that the audience's education and life experience will place a filter on what they read.

Have you ever read a story where you read something one way, only to realize later that you misinterpreted the writer's intent? Let me know in the comments, and make sure to stop in at Writer's Village. There's a ton of great resources and advice to be found.


JeffO said...

Great things to keep in mind at all times, thanks!

Natalie Aguirre said...

I totally misinterpreted that first line too. Thanks for sharing your tips to avoid that.

Jessica Nelson said...

Wow, great tips here! Thanks guys. That first line threw me...LOL I totally thought Jimmy was a person.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Nice job. I need to remember this. *sharing*

Janel Gradowski said...

I'm getting ready to start on editing/rewrites. Some very nice points for me to keep in mind. One thing that really bugs me, as far as context is concerned, is the story where authors purposefully mislead readers just to produce a twist ending - most often in short stories. A little bit of disorientation is fine with me. An entire story worth of being mislead is irritating!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great advice. Especially the one about not assuming the reader reads the book in one sitting. I often get lost if I put a book down at the end of a chapter, only to discover the next one starts at the same location and time, but the author hasn't bothered to add details to remind me that. I have to reread the end of the last chapter to figure it out.

Angela Ackerman said...

Haha, I didn't get the Choo reference either--guess i'm not all that fashionable. Thank goodness for google!

I think one thing that helps some writers with not assuming readers will read the book in one sitting are those of us who have critique partners. I know for me, when I only get one chapter a month from one group, I am always asking for a bit of clarity on this or that to follow things through. Not that readers would have a month between chapters, but it does help me to think ahead, and decide if my writing is clear enough to be understood if there is a break between parts.

Dr John Yeoman said...

Yes, I think one of the cardinal mistakes we make as authors is to assume that the reader is as deeply engaged in our story as we are. One of my contestants at the Writers' Village award closed his tale by having the town hall explode. Why? It made no sense at all. He protested that he had made it perfectly clear in paragraph two that terrorists were lurking in the area.

Alas, that was 3000 words earlier. And readers forget...

Rosi said...

Great information and reminders. Thanks for the interview.

Traci Kenworth said...

Great post!! I've had some books that I've read that confused me, but mostly they were historicals and I figured they were just written that way. It had to do with all these characters with the same first names. They can get tiresome fast when you have to decipher which Duncan or Douglass this one is and where they fit in the family line. Lol.

The Golden Eagle said...

Having finished a John le Carre novel myself just a couple days ago, I interpreted the line similarly.

Excellent post!

Rachna Chhabria said...

I was one of the lucky few who didn't misinterpret the first line. Excellent post.

Angela said...

Brilliant advice, especially #1, setting the scene so that the reader knows where he is.

When I read the first couple of pages of a book, and the writer does this well, I feel as if I'm in good hands. Makes for a much more enjoyable reading experience.

Matthew MacNish said...

I know what Jimmy Choos are, but I thought a Mont Blanc might be an expensive cigarette lighter. Alas!

Jet Shanahan said...

Fantastic advice. Especially as I'm getting back into writing a novel where context is very important.

Realmwright said...

Fashion reference is completely lost on this dullard ;) But I bet if I started naming the tools in my shed and garage America's Next Top Model wouldn't have a clue what I was saying. (contented sigh) There. Now I feel better about my masculinity.

BIG thank you to you and your guest for very good information and insight. Listen up people, he's a doctor, he knows what he's talking about.

Jess said...

Wonderful/helpful post and great examples!

Daron Henson said...

I discovered that myself that, although a writer may think they are being clear in their writing, at times lack of clarity may confuse the reader.

This article lists steps to take so the reader will not become confused.

Thank you.

Sarah Allen said...

Man I really needed this right now. I totally do this.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Kayze said...

I needed this article. Going back to the first draft of my story after a month's break, I realized I had given such little thought to the reader that some parts confused me when I reread them!
Of course, I'm most careless when I write the first draft, but even so, it was horrific!
I like the subtle methods the article gives to keep the reader informed. I'm more heavy handed with my work. Thanks.


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