When Using Vagueness Just Becomes Confusing

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I think we have all been there. We read a story and end up reading passages more than once, just to make sure that we understand what’s going on. And when we finally think we do, the narration states something that contradicts what we thought we understood. To put it simply – it’s just, vague.

The issue, when it comes to writing, is this is very easy to do on accident. Hopefully this blog can help outline how to better recognize these issues, and why it’s important.

When confronting a writer who has a vague narration, they usually respond with, “It’s meant to be that way!” or “It’s subtle!”

*Scratches head*

I don’t…I don’t think that that’s how it works.

When vagueness is purposefully used as a hook to stir curiosity in the reader, in conjunction with world/character building, then you’re bound to confuse the reader. Plain and simple. That’s like trying to build an understanding of physics by just mentioning Newton and then jumping to Stephen Hawking.

I sometimes wonder if the author is attempting to do more “show versus tell” when these situations arise. I can respect that, as showing versus telling is a struggle for many. But don’t forget to “tell” as well.

An Exaggerated Example of vagueness:

Above me is a sea of blue, and a small white dot can even be seen if I squint hard enough. In the distance are white puffs of air moisture that look as soft as cotton. I sit up from my bed and stretch after a long night of rest.

Reader *Looks at author*: Wait, what? His bed? Like, he’s in his bed? For a long moment there I thought you were talking about a sky!

Author *Smiling, thinking they’ve hooked the reader*: Oh yeah, don’t worry. You find out next chapter through a conversation that the protagonist has a mom that does murals for a living and his ceiling is painted like a sky. It’s pretty cool. Just keep reading and you’ll find out more.

*Smacks forehead*

This vagueness comes across more as bad writing versus creative. I see so many writers say, “Just keep reading, it gets better!” or “I know it’s confusing, but it’s supposed to be, because it’s subtle.”

Good try, author. Good try. But I got unfortunate news for you. I am not reading further to find out more, because this sets a really bad tone for your writing.

If you cannot kill your darlings and refuse to take out the confusing lines, then at least meet the reader halfway and clarify such information sooner rather than later. Otherwise, it really comes across as if you got confused and forgot to mention that he was dreaming.

I see a lot of writers defend these actions and say, “But Charlotte, it’s mysterious. It makes the reader confused and want to learn more. It’s so boring to say he was looking at a mural his mother painted!”

Alright, fair enough. Let me counter with an explanation that is more concise:
Vague means “not definite or clear”
Mysterious means “secret, concealed”

Even if something is a mystery, it is still clearly a mystery. When a reader has to almost do math to figure out what is happening, you’re making them think too much. I still recommend focusing on something that a reader can tell is vague, so they understand that the narrator is unreliable.

Since we are on the topic, let’s explore more about using vagueness to inspire mystery (and why I shake my finger at you for doing so):

An Exaggerated Example of using vagueness to be “mysterious”:

Jane Doe walked down the side of the busy New York street, the sounds of blaring horns and people on their cellphones moving around her like waves.

It’s over, she replayed in her head. She chewed on the skin inside her lip, biting too hard when picturing his face. Iron immediately permeated her senses.

She couldn’t understand why he would do such a thing. They had a deal, and yet he broke it.

She fingered the wooden stick in her pocket. She could use it if she had to do. She could make him bend to her will. No, I can’t do that. She huffed out annoyed air, a puff of warmth meeting the cold to form a cloud in front of her face.

She grabbed the stick again, holding it like it was armor. Whenever someone saw it, they thought she was crazy. They didn’t know the truth though. She was more powerful than they knew, more than he knew.

They called it an illusion. She called it reality.

(And then the chapter continues on with never clarifying what the stick was)

Here is the reason this doesn’t really work for me: The characterization is beginning, and so is the world building. And now, I have to build this fictional world on insinuations, versus concrete facts. We essentially have zero context when entering a first chapter, and we are simultaneously desperate to start building the world that exists within the novel.

So readers just grab anything and try to start building. It’s imperative, as the author, that you give them the correct building blocks.

So for example, imagine that the stick from above (It’s actually a wand! *Crowd gasps*) let’s compare it to holding a twinkie on stick while the reader is on a mental treadmill. Getting to the that twinkie is the goal, but when the twinkie has a blur placed over it, we will eventually stop chasing as it as we realize we don’t even know what we are chasing. Make sure the twinkie that you are presenting to your reader is clearly something they will like, not a blurry object we can barely see.

Now you don’t have to go into a long history about her being a witch. But saying, “The wand provided armor.” OR “They called it an illusion. She called the magic that flowed through her a reality.” Things like that don’t outright say she is a witch, but they give a lot more concrete information to make better educated guesses. That’s what you’re really striving for here.

“Alright, Charlotte, so how do I acutally apply this? This is pretty, vague, in itself. What are some rules for me?”

First of all, reader, I appreciate your wonderful sense of humor. *Plays laughing soundtrack*. But you know what, you are right! Let me clarify things then:

  1. Identify the hook
    1. Ask yourself if the hook is vague
      1. Give it to a few friends/beta readers. Ask them what they think x, y, or z is. If they can guess it, then you’re fine! Ignore everything here. You don’t even need to be reading this.
  2. Identify why the hook cannot be stated right away, if you must be “vague” about it
    1. For the above example: If the mystery of her being a witch is just a play on artistic style, then fine. That counts as an answer. But understand readers don’t want to guess about that obvious trait, because the main protagonist knows she is a witch, so why keep it from the reader? It doesn’t do anything for the plot, and that’s what always matters.
  3. Ask yourself if the element that you are being mysterious/vague about is crucial to world/character building
    1. In the example above, being a witch in a world where people don’t know about it is pretty crucial to the plot. Even if this was a Harry Potter Fanfic, we’d need to know this detail.
      1. Again, it does nothing to help the plot to not know she is a witch
      2. If she didn’t know someone else was? That’s different. She’s guessing. But in the example above, she isn’t guessing anything. So why make the reader?
    2. Remember that readers, for the most part, have short attention spans in the beginning. It’s like getting to know someone. Something has to stand out to make us want to know more. If the thing that stands out to us remains vague, we get frustrated and tend to walk away

Oh yeah, wondering why there is an adorable trash panda at the top here? I can’t tell you. It’s a subtle hint. At being vague.

Hah.

*Winks*

-Charlotte

Ah! NaNoWriMo is Scary! (Pst. It’s okay. No it’s not) Here’s 5 Reasons Why

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You see that? That’s a quote I just wrote for NaNoWriMo! See! It does pay off! 😀

Alright, I know, I know. 50k words in 30 days…oof

(Wait, what the fudge is NaNoWriMo, you ask?)

For those that don’t know, NaNoWriMo is a challenge for the entire month of November to crank out 50k words. That’s about it.

Alright, now that that is cleared up, I am here to tell you that it’s actually a fantastic idea. My book No Reflections is something that has been outlined for a while, with maybe a scene or two written, but I had yet to actually start it.

This is where NaNoWriMo kicks in. If you are an aspiring author who wants to attempt at writing as a career, even just part-time, then practicing writing 50k words in a month is actually an important thing to do.

Essentially NaNoWriMo is not about writing a perfect novel in 30 days. It’s about getting your story on paper. It’s about giving some flesh to those characters. Even if you use none of the 50k words that you wrote in 30 days, the exercise alone furthered you in your writing process.

It’s like doing a painting. For oils, you have to do it in layers. Writing is synonymous to that.

But Charlotte! I just want to paint the damned nose! (Or write the kick-ass scene I know everyone will love!)

Well, slow down there, Johnny! You still need the background, the colors, the generic shape of the face, and the details of the rest of the face as well. I am sure you can follow the analogy to writing here.

Sure, you want to write that amazing, fantastic scene that you have in your head (similar to painting that beautiful nose). But you still need a story to attach it to. To keep the analogy going, you still need a body to paint before that nose is even considered a thing. Writing 50k words in 30 days is a way of vomiting those ideas onto a page just to get it out of your system. No one said it had to be pretty.

Because in truth, your novel is never going to get written, unless you start writing it. Let it suck in its first draft. That’s fine! You can’t write a final draft, however, until you have that first draft written.

That’s the whole point to NaNoWriMo.

“But Charlotte! I didn’t plan at all for this!”

D:

It’s all cool! Don’t stress if you can’t join this month. Find a month, or even a span of a few months (heck, even a year!) and set a goal of 50k words.

Sometimes to write a story, you just have to get to writing. This is also like dating. You have to date the terrible ones to find the right one. For writing, you have to write ugly first drafts to even dream of that final one. So start swiping right to those ideas of yours!

How else will you know what works and what doesn’t?

So here are the 5 reasons laid out in bullet-point fashion in case you scrolled down just to find these:

5 Reasons Why NaNoWriMo is Awesome:

  1. It gets your creative juices flowing, even if they are terrible. They don’t help you much when they are stagnant.
  2. You get familiarized with your world. You learn what you like, and what you don’t like.
  3. On the off chance that what you write is actually good, then hey! You got 50k words written!
  4. You’re bound to at least get a few usable paragraphs for your final draft. Essentially, something will come out of it.
  5. You get your novel started, which sometimes is the hardest part.

In the end, when it comes to starting a novel, sometimes you just have to start. And NaNoWriteMo is the perfect excuse to.

 

-Charlotte

An Example of Sensory Details

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Last time I checked, most readers do not live in a void. They live with their five senses, six if you count thoughts. It is crucial to include these in your story. Below I will go over the senses briefly and then provide examples.

Sense 1: Sight
This one is obvious and very hard not to use. I would recommend focusing on smaller details rather than the obvious to emphasize this. You see a kitchen but indulge on what that means. Like the fork left out from snacking on cake earlier, the coffee pot that is still on, the bag of chips that needs to be closed, the grout that needs to be cleaned, etc.

Sense 2: Hearing
Sounds aren’t just loud things. It can be the fan running in the distance, the sound of the keys on a keyboard typing, the sound of someone sneezing in the background, or being so close to someone you can hear them breathe.

Sense 3: Touch
Basically anything with your skin. Even your bum feels things, like cold chairs or soft couches. Your body feels the heat when near a fire. You can feel inertia when on a roller coaster. It’s not just limited to your fingers and toes!

Sense 4: Taste
Taste is underrated, I think. You can’t really use it often either unless your story follows a food critic. You need to just watch for when there is a chance to explain a taste. Like drinking coffee – what flavor is it? Eating a snack, or a meal, or the taste of gum, or even the taste of iron if they have blood in their mouth.

Sense 5: Smell
The one that is underused, and so powerful. We associate a lot of memory with smell. Have you ever smelled a candle and had nearly a chapter of your life flash by? That’s why smell is critical. When it rains, mention the smell of wet asphalt. When reading a book, mention the smell of paper. When entering a building, mention if it smells fresh or like old wood and cats. When a protagonist is near another, mention the smell of their clothes that smell like fresh linen or a dingy musk, not just cologne.

EXAMPLE: The setting is the protagonist is reading a novel at a coffee shop.

With S1:
I look around and see customers piling in, shaking off their boots to rid of the fresh snow. Some are blowing into their hands. Chicago always did have nasty winters.

 With S1,2:
 I hear the door open with a groan and see customers piling in while shaking off their snowy boots. Some are blowing into their hands. I look to my coffee as the lady next to me answers her phone with an obnoxious, “Heeeey, how are yooou?” I groan, just like the frozen doors. Thankfully the grinding of coffee beans drowned her out, if only for a moment.

With S1,2,3:
I hear the door open with a groan and see customers piling in while shaking off their snowy boots. Some are blowing into their hands, and I mindlessly rub my free hand on my denim jeans. I look at my coffee which was gratefully warming my hand. The lady next to me answers her phone with an obnoxious, “Heeeey, how are yooou?” I groan, just like the frozen doors. Thankfully the grinding of coffee beans drowned her out, if only for a moment.

With S1,2,3,4:
I hear the door open with a groan and see customers piling in while shaking off their snowy boots. Some are blowing into their hands, and I mindlessly rub my free hand on my denim jeans. I look at my coffee which was gratefully warming my hand. I pick up the cardboard cup and take a sip of the cinnamon latte. I love lattes. They are never too hot and have a milky flavor that makes me always drink it too fast.

The lady next to me answers her phone with an obnoxious, “Heeeey, how are yooou?” I groan, just like the frozen doors. Thankfully the grinding of coffee beans drowned her out, if only for a moment.

With S1,2,3,4,5:
I hear the door open with a groan and see customers piling in while shaking off their snowy boots. Some are blowing into their hands, and I mindlessly rub my free hand on my denim jeans. I take in a deep breath and smell the fresh coffee that permeates the entire building. It reminds me of the way bacon seems to fill every nook of my apartment when sizzling on the skillet. I look at my coffee which was gratefully warming my hand. I pick up the cardboard cup, greeted with the smell of plastic before I take a sip of the cinnamon latte. I love lattes. They are never too hot and have a milky flavor that makes me always drink it too fast.

The lady next to me answers her phone with an obnoxious, “Heeeey, how are yooou?” I groan, just like the frozen doors. Thankfully the grinding of coffee beans drowned her out, if only for a moment.

Obviously, you don’t need all five senses, all the time. However, you can see when used appropriately how the five senses blend together to really give an image in the readers head. The difference between books and movies is that books can make you feel, smell and taste things in your mind. Movies can only give you sound and sight.

I won’t drone on, as I think the examples speak for themselves. I hoped this helped and feel free to share it if you’d like!

-Charlotte

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