Pillow Fights, Oysters, and Changes of State

1333815844-national-pillow-fight-day-2012--trafalgar-square-united-kingdom_1146081This blog is not really about pillow fights. Nor is it about moving from Nebraska, say, to California—although, I’ve actually done that … twice. And any seafood involved is metaphorical. This blog is about key reasons that many of the stories I read for writers’ workshops and in my editing work just miss connecting with me as a reader.

Sometimes the connection fails at the storytelling level. I’ve read any number of stories in which the author has given us a good setting and even a good setup for the action, but fails to deliver because of imprecise language. The sensation I get is of someone punching me hard … with a tribble … in bubble wrap … inside a down pillow.

One story I critiqued referred to a “symbol” that appeared on a computer screen. This conjured images of heraldic crests or company logos. But then the writer went on to say a bit farther down the page, “Beneath the smiling face, in an elegant font, were printed the words, ‘Beware the friendly’.” 

Vampire_SmileyWhat smiling face, I wondered? The phrase “the smiling face” suggested that I should already know of its existence. I’d only been told about a symbol, not a … oh, I see. The smiling face is an element in what the writer is referring to as a symbol. In this context, the word symbol is imprecise and misleading. A better word might be image, or logo or, better yet, the writer could simply have said that a smiling face appeared on the screen with the text below it. As it was, I spent enough time trying to visualize this item, that any sense of mystery and context were lost.

Mark Twain is said to have written: “Use the right word; not its second cousin.” As writers, we need to be clear about the impressions we want our readers to have, then carefully use the right words to convey those impressions so that they are sharp, clear, and immediate.

Even more centrally, the connection between writer and reader can fail because of something in the development of the characters. More than once, I’ve seen a writer provide a good protagonist with an emotional story, a dire situation, high stakes and a good hook, but fail to show the character’s journey through the story or how the situation affects him or her. 

In other words, there’s no state change for either the character(s) or the reader, who gets no sense of having learned something about said characters, their world, and their situation. If I know little more at the end of a story than I did at the beginning, I feel as if I haven’t actually experienced anything. I did not take a journey with the protagonist because, when all was said and done, he didn’t go anywhere.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes


Readers reflexively make their way through a story like detectives—looking for clues about what’s really happening, what it all means, how it all works together. In the absence of those clues being supplied by the writer, readers will form expectations about where the story is going, based on what they believe to be clues. They will try to connect the dots in a story even if the dots are nonexistent or entirely accidental. Readers expect to see patterns in prose, and if the writer does not supply one, they will invent one … and may be unpleasantly surprised or just plain confused if the story ends up not matching the pattern they have chosen.

(And yes, I did just indulge in a thin excuse to post a picture of Benedict Cumberbatch.)

By way of example, I recently critiqued a story in which intentionally caused electrical blackouts were a key element. They were a political statement, but this information—as well as information about who they were caused by and why—was absent until the last page of the story.  The writer wanted an air of mystery, so he withheld information from the reader. But he withheld so much information (such as what his protagonist knew and felt about these blackouts) that the reader was left completely in the dark (ahem). In the end, the importance of the blackouts and the role they played in the story came as a surprise. It’s as if he might force the reader to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain by simply neglecting to mention the curtain’s existence, thus eliminating the possibility that the reader will suspect there’s someone hiding behind it.

It’s a writer’s job to help our readers connect the dots we want them to connect and to guide that process in far more honest ways than simply withholding evidence. Not only does this undermine a reader’s trust, but when a reader feels as if he doesn’t know what’s going on, it makes him feel dense. This is not a comfortable feeling.

oysterAh, but often, isn’t the point of writing to make the reader uncomfortable—to challenge his expectations and preconceptions? Yes, indeedy, it is. But (as I believe I’ve said before) we want our ideas to be challenging, not the process of discovering what they are. The pearl of a writer’s craft and wisdom (not to mention her challenging ideas) will remain hidden if she hands the reader an oyster that’s too tough to crack.



Pillow Fights, Oysters, and Changes of State — 2 Comments

  1. So you’re saying that all the plot has to bounce back to the character, like a ball bouncing back off a wall. Bilbo takes the job as a burglar, but then feels inadequate at it. So he picks up the gold cup and brings it back to Thorin & Co. Which then makes the dragon mad. Which then makes the dwarves grouchy. Action leads to character emotion, which drives a new action, which then makes the other characters feel something ….

    • Sure works that way for me. Which brings up a whole different angle: which is what happens in a reader’s head when a writer tries to force interesting things to happen that are not driven by the characters and their circumstances. I’ve had no end of writers I’ve workshopped with who are perplexed when I try to explain why a quarrel between two characters falls flat—because they’ve provided the sparring partners with no reason to be angry, sad, cowed, disturbed, or whatever emotions they use adverbs to create.

      My take on it is, if you have to tell the reader what the character is feeling rather than relying on the dialogue and its context to convey that information, you may wish to rethink what’s driving the conversation.