Curiosity Versus Confusion

Some clarity creates curiosity; too little creates confusion

Some time ago I read an article in the Writer’s Digest by Steve Almond in which he stated what he considers to be the writers Hippocratic oath: “Never confuse the reader.”

Initially this seems to clash with much advice about backstory. Writers don’t need to put everything up front, we say, and readers are far more patient than we think. In fact, they enjoy being led into a story, enjoy figuring things out rather than having all handed to them.

In other words, one sign of an amateur is too much description, too much backstory at the beginning. But Almond’s article is saying that a sign of an amateur is to leave the reader in the dark.

Are these two points in opposition, as they appear to be? I don’t think so. I think there’s a huge difference between being confused and being curious. The best story piques a reader’s interest. I don’t think that will happen successfully if the writer gives too much information. Neither do I think it will happen if a reader is confused.

Like so much in life, there is a tenuous balance. What information should a writer give and what should he withhold?

Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. First, writers muddle readers with conflicting facts or details. If the master bedroom is on the right in chapter one, then it must also be on the right in chapter five. If the heroine is afraid of heights, then she shouldn’t volunteer to scale the ladder to retrieve the ball.

Confusion also results from improper motivation — when the reader isn’t given enough information to understand why a character is acting as he is. In the example above, the character may have a compelling motive for overcoming her fear to retrieve the ball, but it must be believable and compelling. “My dad will kill me if he sees that ball on the roof,” isn’t a good motive, unless in fact, the father is abusive and this has been clearly established by this point in the story.

Third, readers can be confused when the writer does not ground the story in the concrete. The following illustration is a variation of one Steve Almond gave in his article.

    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 that question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some information (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 paragraph, I suspect confusion may set 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.

Finally, writers can baffle readers by putting something into a scene that has not been either foreshadowed or previously introduced.

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 transport himself to another place using his magic power — the magic power the reader had no idea he possessed.

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.

In other words, writers should deliver specifics on a need to know basis. 😀

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Filed under Backstory, Writing Rules

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