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Avoiding Reader Confusion: What, Where, When and Why
by Marg Gilks

Return to Fiction Tips & Techniques · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

The story playing out in your mind -- the one you're writing down -- isn't the same one your readers will "see," unless you share with them the details that make the story work for you.

In in Off with the (Talking) Heads we covered Who; now we're talking about What, Where, When and Why. In other words, about scene and setting, motive, and plot.

When Did That Happen?

In terms of setting, when and where are tied together. I mentioned in Off with the (Talking) Heads that "talking heads" stories often confuse by neglecting Who; they can also confuse readers when it comes to Where and When. But any story can confuse its readers if the author neglects to indicate a scene break.

Let's say your reader has just spent seven paragraphs following along with Buffy and Jody as they interact. The reader starts paragraph eight, expecting more of the same, when -- whoa! Jody is now discussing Buffy's death with a Swahili witch doctor! The reader is left reeling: when did Buffy die? "When" in the chronology of the story did Jody start talking to the witch doctor, and where did this witch doctor come from, anyway? And where is Jody now, to give him occasion to talk to the witch doctor?

Now, if this were your plot, I would certainly hope that you'd reveal the details of Buffy's death to the reader at some point later in the story. That aside, all you have to do here to warn the reader of a change is to indicate a scene break. Start a new chapter, or insert a blank line containing three spaced stars, or just a blank line between paragraph seven and paragraph eight, to let the reader know to change gears. Or start paragraph eight with a warning phrase such as "Ten years later..."; "After traveling to Africa..."; or, if Mr. French is talking to the Swahili witch doctor while Buffy and Jody are still doing their scene off stage: "Meanwhile..." All of these will cue the reader to expect a change.

What takes more effort to fix is a total lack of time and place in the story -- when the writer has neglected to describe when or where the story takes place; there is no setting, only action (or talking heads) taking place against a big, empty gray backdrop that should be full of sights and sounds and smells.

If this is what your story lacks, then you have to go back and fill in the details, taking the time to add the scenery and characters' perceptions that will make the story come to life in your reader's mind.

This takes time. It also requires effort and skill, because you can't just create setting by means of an "information dump." You have to weave these details into the story so that they add to its flavor without being obvious.

Why Is This Happening

If the reader is asking why or what, your story could have some serious problems. If the reader doesn't know why your character is doing something, it's because you haven't established a motive. Motive is what moves a story forward. It's fundamental to successful storytelling.

Is evil Dr. Death trying to kill Bob Hero simply because Dr. Death's a nasty guy? The reader isn't going to buy into a one-dimensional character like that for very long. Readers expect more from you; they're investing their time in your story, and if they can't figure out a good reason why Dr. Death's out to get Bob Hero, then they're not going to care much about these characters, for one, and they're not going to put much stock in your credibility as a storyteller, for another. They'll likely get bored, get impatient, put your story down, and walk away.

Establishing motive involves developing character and revealing pertinent background. Look around you; study people. Why is that little girl screaming and stamping her foot in the grocery store? She's throwing a tantrum, yes. But why? Because her mother won't buy her a candy bar. By throwing a tantrum, the little girl is hoping to get her own way, to get the candy bar. Perhaps it worked before. This is motive. It gives action meaning and characters depth. It gives the story a reason. Make sure the reader knows why your characters are doing what they're doing; why events are unfolding as they are.

If your reader doesn't know what's going on, you may have some heavy rewriting to do. Confusion of this sort usually flags plot holes or worse, no plot at all. It can also arise from poorly choreographed action sequences, or poorly written dialogue.

Streamlining Dialogue

Dialogue is easy enough to fix. If the reader doesn't know what the characters are talking about, it could be because the characters' conversations are fragmented, disjointed -- not all there. Perhaps the writer was concentrating too hard on making the conversation fit what's expected of stereotypical characters -- the hardboiled detective and the tough broad, say, trading lines like "There's a cool million in this for you if you play your cards right"; "Sure doll, don't sweat it." What are these people talking about? This is dialogue for the sake of effect alone; there is no real transfer of information. Or, perhaps the writer hasn't translated enough of the conversation inside his head to the page -- the reader is getting only part of the conversation, and it doesn't make any sense.

Try this: have two friends "play parts" and read aloud one of the conversations between two of your characters. You just sit and listen; supply no prompts or information. Does the conversation you hear make sense to you? Does it make sense to your two friends? Ask them to interpret what they just read out loud. What do they think they were just talking about? If they don't know, rewrite.

Sequence and Logic

If a reader comes away from your action sequence with his or her head spinning, you will have to look at the sequence and make sure it's just that -- a sequence: one action logically following another, step by step. Try mapping out the sequence, to make sure you didn't miss describing a step in the action, and also to make sure the action taking place is physically possible. Write each step down in point form as you see it unfolding in your head. Now write each step down as you wrote it in your story, and compare the two. If there's anything missing, or out of order, rewrite your sequence, referring to your map to keep on track.

If the reader doesn't know what your story is about, you're in trouble. Look at your story. Is it a story? Do events flow logically one into another to a satisfying conclusion, or does nothing really happen? Do characters wander from scene to scene without doing or accomplishing anything? If this is the case, it may be best to scrap the whole thing and start over with a definite goal in mind. Try writing an outline of the story you want to tell, and then use that outline as a guide to keep you on track. Take the time to plan, to develop characters, to plan the sequences of cause and effect that move those characters forward and thus make a story.

If there's a hole in the story's plot, the reader will also stumble over "what." A plot hole is like a gap in logic: the effect can't possibly have been caused by that action; stimulus does not produce the most realistic response; the basic facts are wrong, and so on.

When a reader hits a plot hole, they stop believing what the writer is telling them. They start saying things like "If the houses are built entirely of stone, how can the whole city burn to the ground?" or "If they just traveled one hundred miles in ten minutes, what kind of super-horses are these people riding?"

If those flaws can't be fixed with a logical explanation, then the story has to be redesigned. If your whole story is based on a premise that doesn't stand up to reader scrutiny, it will crumble.

Make sure you've given your readers all of the 5Ws -- who, when, where, why and what -- and they'll "see" your story as you do.

Find Out More...

Why Doesn't the Dog Bark? Plot Points vs. Plot Holes - Victoria Grossack

Copyright © 2001 Marg Gilks
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Marg Gilks' short stories, poetry, and articles have been appearing in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and e-zines since 1977. She considers writing fiction, especially sf/f, the ultimate form of escapism -- in what other field can you create your own universe? Contact her with feedback and queries through Scripta Word Services, her freelance editing business: http://www.scripta-word-services.com/.


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