Critique Technique, Part 40 — What Was That Again?

Cartoon confused man

Ever had one of those moments when you’re reading through a story or article and the author’s description of a place, event, or person makes you stop and say to yourself, “Wait, did I miss something?” Sure you have. We all have.

It’s OK for an author to confuse a reader if he’s doing it intentionally and in a way that makes them want—no, need—to read more. But confusing descriptions that stop the reader and interrupt the flow of the story are another matter.

When these kinds of problems show up, it’s a good bet the author either knew what she meant but didn’t realize it hadn’t come out that way on the page, or she didn’t know how to say what she was trying to express. As a reviewer, you’re likely to be the first person to pick these problems up, so it’s your job to identify them and help the author fix them.

Confusing descriptions can come in at least these four forms:

  • Vague or insufficient detail;
  • Contradictory or inconsistent information;
  • Inappropriate or irrelevant information; or
  • Details the narrator or POV character shouldn’t know.

Let’s look at each.

Vague or Insufficient Detail

I covered vague descriptions in Part 39. Insufficient detail is related. Here there’s simply not enough information for the reader to build a mental picture of the character, object, or setting of the current moment of the story at all. An easy example is when the writer doesn’t identify the time or place when a scene begins. Another might be when he places a scene in a hotel room but give no other sense of what kind of hotel it is: a Motel 6 or the Ritz Carlton. (This is called “white room syndrome.”) Or, to continue the image of the river valley from Part 39, it might be wide and shallow or narrow and deep, lush and verdant or barren and dry, but the author never tells the reader.

If these details are important to the story, whether they’re setting mood, placing the piece, or revealing something about a character, and if there aren’t enough or clear enough details to do the job, they need to be added or fixed.

Contradictory or Inconsistent

Contradictory or inconsistent details can cause the reader to laugh when the author didn’t mean for her to. Contradictory details can be useful for revealing character—the muscular he-man who’s afraid of germs, for example—or to signal some kind of change, but if the contradiction shows up without a clear purpose, that’s a problem.

What often happens is that one detail shows up in one place, and then the contradictory or inconsistent detail shows up some time, maybe even chapters, later. In my first novel, I had a character who in one chapter stood 5 feet 11 inches tall. Several chapters later, she was 6-foot-2, and no, she hadn’t put on heels. Oops! These kinds of physical description contradictions trip up a lot of writers, especially if they haven’t done a separate, detailed character study.

These kinds of problems can also be hard for you as a reviewer to catch, especially if you’re reading a work a chapter at a time with weeks between chapters. There’s no easy fix for this. If you have the kind of mind that will retain those details, that helps, but even that’s not a guarantee. Copy editors often make lists of these kinds of details so they can check them, but even they can’t know in advance which details might get contradicted. It’s a lot to ask you to do the same thing, so catch them if you can.

If the problem is a contradiction, and you catch it, make sure you discuss it with the author to determine whether it was intentional or not. If it was intentional, then he may need to make the purpose of the contradiction clearer.

Inappropriate or Irrelevant

Inappropriate or irrelevant details show up when the author isn’t clear in her own mind about what she’s trying to describe or what she means to do with these details. In this case, she may throw lots of things at the wall to see what sticks, or have no idea that what she’s doing isn’t working.

For example, I once read part of a first draft of a memoir by a member of my writers’ group. She spent several pages describing things she and a friend had done. Her intent was to illustrate aspects of this important character’s personality, but the collection of vignettes was a tangent at that moment in the story, and that much of that kind of detail was out of place. It wasn’t entirely irrelevant but it certainly was inappropriate.

The good news is that these kinds of details do a great imitation of a sore thumb. As soon as you find yourself asking the author, “Why are you telling me this?” you’ve found something you need to flag. Be sure, though, that you also explain why the details in question aren’t appropriate or relevant and, if possible, suggest where he might use them instead.

Details the Narrator or POV Character Shouldn’t Know

Details the narrator or POV character can’t or shouldn’t know can be very tricky. Let’s say the work you’re reading is a murder mystery and a character (who you’ll learn later is the killer) comes into a detective’s office, looking to hire her to “solve” the case by framing someone else for the crime. Let’s say the detective is also the narrator and reports noticing that the potential client had a hole in the sole of his left shoe. So far, so good, except the author never showed you that the client stood, sat, or walked so the detective would have seen that sole! Even if that’s the sole problem with the scene (ahem), it does put a hole in the author’s credibility.

Like some of the other problems I discussed above, these details are likely to show up when the author hasn’t thought through the scene well enough, or hasn’t realized what he’s done. After all, he knows what he intended!

Questions For You

Let’s sum up, then, with a few questions to keep in mind as you’re reading.

  • Do I have enough information here to give me a clear mental image of the person, place, mood, or thing I’m supposed to be sensing? (Remember, sensory details aren’t just visual but can engage several senses.)
  • Do any of the details contradict each other in ways that confuse me rather than revealing something important?
  • Are any of the details here inconsistent with what I was told earlier in ways that are not meant to reveal a change or some new aspect of the character, location, or situation?
  • Do the details I’m seeing here distract me from the main story?
  • Do I wonder why I’m being given this information now?
  • Is the narrator or POV character revealing something he shouldn’t or can’t know at this moment in the story?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, identify the nature of the problem and how the author can fix it. Next time around, the writing should be much better.

Have I given you enough of the right kinds of details about details to help you help other authors? If not, go ahead and add what I left out, or clarify what I wrote, in the comments box below.

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