I’ve determined my new writing goal: Create no reader confusion. And I’ve also deduced that creating reader curiosity is not the same as confusion. In fact, the former is desirable and a key factor as to whether or not a reader will continue on with my story.
Like so much in life, then, there is a tenuous balance between what information a writer gives and what he withholds.
Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. My friend Sally Apokedak once said that a writer creates confusion by providing conflicting facts. I agree, but I think there is more.
I think confusion results from improper motivation—when the reader isn’t given enough to understand why a character is acting as he is.
Another cause for confusion, in my opinion, is when the writer does not ground the story in something concrete. Playing off columnist Steve Almond‘s examples in a June 2008 Writer’s Digest article, I’ll offer one of my own to illustrate this point.
He didn’t know why she said it, but more importantly why she said it about him.
Does this create confusion or curiosity? The answer to this question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some answers (who is he, who is she, what’s the relationship between the two, what did she say, and why did she say it?) in the next little bit, I suggest confusion sets in.
The author does not need to give all the answers, perhaps not even complete answers, and probably not answers without introducing new questions. But the point is, unanswered questions or long-delayed answers are a cause for confusion.
A third cause, in my opinion, is the appearance of that which has not been foreshadowed or outright introduced in a scene. If a character is confronted by villains on the right and another baddie on the left, even as the true antagonist closes in from behind, what’s the hero to do? Well, he’ll hide in the barn, of course. The barn that the reader had no idea was in the scene. Above all, this kind of manipulation breaks the trust of the reader. He no longer feels confident that the author has told him all he needs to know.
But just how much should an author tell the reader? Almond’s answer to this dilemma is helpful:
The reader should know at least as much as your protagonist … [Readers] are happy to open with a scene, so long as they get the necessary background. And they don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.
Helpful guidelines, I think.
This article is a repost of one that appeared at A Christian Worldview of Fiction June 17, 2008.