Writing Fiction: Huh?

I’ve been getting a lot of question marks on my feedbacks recently. Two different novels, two different writer’s groups. But the question is always the same, ‘What is happening?’ ‘I don’t understand,’ or just plain, ‘?’

Have a look at this. It’s from the opening of a chapter:

‘It’s not all about you, Ellie.’

‘How can you possibly say that?!’ It was hard to express outrage in a poky, ill-painted backstage room, but Ellie was doing full hands-on-hips. ‘You’re talking about me, aren’t you?’

Ciaran sighed like a man who has just watched a ball sail past and land inside the line. He nodded at the list on the wall. ‘You’re on second, so you’re on second.’

Thing is, you may or may not be confused by this, but I know exactly what is going on. It’s backstage at a comedy club. Ellie is trying to persuade the booker to allow her to go on as the first act of the evening rather than the second. He doesn’t want to let her.

Two questions were raised. Firstly, saying that a ball lands inside a line can either mean you’ve won or you’ve lost, depending on the game and which side you’re on. Secondly, the sentence, ‘You’re on second, so you’re on second.’ This might indeed be something that a booker would say for emphasis, but could sound nonsensical.

So let’s look at how I might give the readers a break. I could change the dialogue to, ‘You’re second on the list and you’re staying there.’ It’s a bit explainey, but I could live with it. I could also describe what they’re looking at. ‘Ciaran stabbed his finger at the neatly-typed list blu-tacked to the wall.’ If I get rid of the repetition of ‘list’, it should work. As for the tennis analogy, I’m not so attached to it. Now that he’s ‘stabbing his finger’ he’s become less passive anyway.

‘It’s not all about you, Ellie.’

‘How can you possibly say that?!’ It was hard to express outrage in a poky, ill-painted backstage room, but Joy was doing full hands-on-hips. ‘You’re talking about me, aren’t you?’

Ciaran stabbed his finger at the neatly-typed list Blu-Tacked to the wall. ‘You’re on second, and you’re staying there!’

One of the advantages of this is that the attribution is accompanied by an action and a further description of the room. Which means the reader is more likely to be able to keep up, and helps with the immersion I was talking about last time.

But I can feel myself getting antsy. Why can’t everyone just understand what I mean? Except, they clearly don’t. And the new version seems to work better.

Hmmf.

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5 thoughts on “Writing Fiction: Huh?

  1. Yes, much better. Readers may be intelligent, but they can’t second guess you, so if you don’t supply them enough (clear) information to know what’s going on, I can see how they might feel lost from time to time. I sometimes find identifying who is talking in a dialogue a real challenge. Writers are sometimes loathe to attribute speech, but I don’t think readers find it so clumsy as writers might expect.
    Hope its going well… Ed

  2. ‘You’re on second, so you’re on second.’ Use italics for the emphatic repetition if you’re attached to keeping that line. I’d also suggest you go easy on the compound adjectives, the hyphenated words. They really are quite strong and can burden sentences enough to lose readers.

    Regarding the whole “this doesn’t make sense” thing, it’s an easy trap to fall into. We know our stories so well that we omit details we consider blatant and obvious. This usually takes the form of not letting the reader know who is talking.

    As Ed said above, using too many speaker attributions is very much an issue only we perceive. *We* know exactly who is talking; our readers do not.

  3. My problem is with the name Ciaran which I do not know how to pronounce so cannot ‘see’ the character. Maybe you dealt with that earlier in the novel. Otherwise I quite like novels the reader has to work out but I suppose some hard info is essential. Am spending time right now turning a novel unside out to make it ‘literary’ whatever that is!
    Jane Hayward

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