Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Good Read and a Writing Tip on Reader Cues

by Mary Shelley

The product of a "Horror Weekend" spent telling ghostly tales together with Lord Byron and her husband, Percy Shelley, left 18-year-old Mary Shelley with the beginnings of the classic FRANKENSTEIN. Her tale of the doctor who builds a monster from dead body parts, is a classic.

Question from the e-mail:  People in my writing class say my work is confusing.  Any ideas why this should be so?

Answer: Usually, when readers feel confused, it's one of two things. Either the pronouns are unclear. Or there are too few reader cues. When I first started writng that was one of my own worst failings. I'd start a scene where the hero and heroine were discussing something important while she was hanging out the laundry in the sunny backyard. BUT I'd forget to tell them about the sunny back yard, on a remote Chesapeake Bay island, in 1894...

 Then, since didn't cue them where it was, they'd think up a place -- maybe even an indoor place--- and if a bird flew over they'd be startled right out of my story.

Check out the following example:

Look at the following paragraph taken from an early Mystery story that I later sold to Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine -- after I fixed all this of course.

It was a warm and sunny day. He didn’t know what to do about it. Marsha should have known better. But the important thing was that Jerry wouldn’t ever find out what had happened. He was a made guy and he’d never liked him from the get-go.

After reading that, are you feeling confused? You should be. Take a second look. “It was a warm and sunny day.” Big deal. Where?  When? He (Who?) didn’t know what to do about it. (About what?) Marsha (who she?) Should have known better (than to what?). But the important thing was that Jerry (who is he?) wouldn’t ever find out what had happened. (What did happen?) He (who?) was a made guy (gangland slang and maybe obscure to some but possibly a present time story) he’d (who?) never really liked him (who else?) from the get-go. (Classic pronoun confusion. Do we have three different Hes, or To, or possibly three.)

Now try it again with the reader cues in bold type.

It was a warm and sunny day when Dick Ramsgate drove his sister Marsha’s Cadillac convertible off the fishing pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. There it stood, fender deep in breakers and still looking classic. Dick sure didn’t know what to do. After last night at the crap tables, he didn’t even have enough money to hire a tow truck. (Who, when, and Where in the first paragraph to set the scene.)

He decided to wire Marsha for the money to get the car towed and fixed. She should have known better than to lend him the car in the first place. Marsha had known he was a screw-up all his life. The thing was to get the damn thing fixed so it looked okay. Because the really important thing was that her husband, Jerry, didn’t find out what had happened. Jerry’s name wasn’t Italian for nothing. He was a made guy and he’d never liked Dick from the get-go. (Problem Statement: what the characters in the story will have to deal with.)

No comments:

Post a Comment