Monday, March 4, 2013

Avoid Reader Confusion

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
GuilaneNachez_TestTubeI’m the kind of person who likes to know everything about an event before I attend. 

Where should I park? What should I wear? How many people will be there?  Should I bring money?  Should I bring my own chair?  What about bottled water or a lunch? How early should I arrive?  Should I stay until the end or may I leave early? Do you have any helpful tips at all to help me navigate this event?

This is because I really dislike being confused.  And, naturally, the gods conspire to make me as addled as possible.  I’ll pore over websites and email event organizers and remain as clueless as ever.

The last couple of weekends I’ve been way out of my depth at two events for my daughter.  A week ago it was a piano competition and this past weekend it was a science competition.  Both times I accidentally violated the rules (Yes….me!  A rule violator!) by going into areas where adults weren’t allowed.  I know: you’d think I’d notice there were no other adults around, but—I’m a writer.  I can be foggy.  Apparently, they’re worried about parents cheating by providing help to their kids during the competitions.  (If they only knew how very little I know about music and science, this wouldn’t have been a problem….)

So I was fussed at by event organizers a couple of times and embarrassed my daughter. Of course, I embarrass my children by just existing, much of the time.  The irritating thing is that the event organizers hadn't listed this important bit of information on any of their flyers or on their website. They were probably just so accustomed to organizing and attending the yearly events that they forgot what it's like to be a newcomer to them. 

This feeling of utter confusion is the last thing I want my readers to go through.

I do want to give them unanswered questions to keep them reading. I do want to give them something to think about and puzzle over.  I do want to give them a mystery to solve.  But there’s a lot they could be confused about, if I’m not careful.

Potential areas where we could confuse readers:

Character motivation.  Why is Harry suddenly acting so different? 

Character identity.  Who’s this character again?  He hasn’t been onstage for a while…

Plot.  It’s fine to have a twisty plot, but are you making it too hard for the reader to follow along? 

Setting.  Where are we now?  Check your transitions to make sure you’ve eased the reader into the new location.

Character identity in a different way.  If we’ve got Molly and Sally and Len and Ian, maybe we need to rethink our names.

As an addendum to this story—I was feeling strung-out after my earlier confusion, when I finally felt like I belonged at one of these events. At the science competition, a group was about to go into a testing room—and had no pencils. For this event, if you’re not prepared, you’re out.  There was great panic among the team of middle schoolers—until I reached in my purse and pulled out six or seven Ticonderogas and two pens.  :)  How often do you get to save the day as a writer?  Not very often. There’s never anyone who calls out, “Is there a writer in the house?”  But finally—I was part of the group!

How do you keep readers in the loop?

Image: MorgueFile: Guilane Nachez