Ever had one of those moments when you’re reading through a story or article and the author’s description of a place or event or person makes you stop and say to yourself, “Wait, did I miss something?” Sure you have. We all have.
It’s okay to confuse a reader if it’s done intentionally and in a way that makes them want—no, need—to read more. But confusing descriptions that stop the reader and in so doing, 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 they meant and didn’t realize it hadn’t come out that way on the page, or they had no idea what they were trying to express. As a reviewer, you’re likely to be the first person to pick them up, so it’s your job to identify the problems 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 last time. Insufficient detail is another matter. Here there’s simply not enough information for the reader to build a picture of the character, object, or setting of the current moment of the story. 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. Or, to continue the image of the river valley from Part 40, 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, if there aren’t enough or clear enough details to do the job, they need to be added or fixed.
Contradictory or Inconsistent
These kinds of 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—but if the contradiction shows up without a clear purpose, such as to signal some kind of change, 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 problems can be hard to catch, especially if you’re reading a work a chapter at a time with weeks in 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. 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
These kinds of confusing details show up when the author isn’t clear in her own mind 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, a couple of weeks ago I read part of a first draft of a memoir from 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. Not entirely irrelevant but certainly 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
These problem details can be very tricky. Let’s say the work you’re reading is a murder mystery and the character (who we’ll learn later is actually the killer) comes into a detective’s office, looking to hire her to “solve” the case. Let’s say the detective is also the narrator and reports noticing that the potential client had a hole in the sole of her left shoe. So far, so good, except that the client never stood, sat, or walked in a way that would have let the detective see 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. He knows what he intended!
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, or thing I’m supposed to be sensing? (Remember, 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?
- 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 telling me something he shouldn’t be able to know at this moment in the story?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, identify the nature of the problem and what the author can do to fix it. Next time around, the writing should be much better.