Combating Confusion

Gawd (and the Muses) knows I write worlds filled with long histories, funky rules, and unique geography. Sure, my concepts are pretty awesome (if I do say so myself), but in practice, they’re beasts to communicate. Coupled with my attempts at complex characters and action-y scenes, I’m an incubator for my readership to go, “huh?

In a week where the Muses have been dissecting What does THAT mean, why am I writing about confusion? After all, everyone knows confusion is a basic human condition (c’mon, don’t pretend it’s just mine). But the comment is often applied by critiquers with such broad brushstrokes that it leaves me just as befuddled as they are. When I hear such vagueness, I want to grab the reader by the shoulders and scream, “Where is it confusing? What was so confounding? DETAILS!

Confusion can center around any aspect of a novel from plot to character motivation to world building to lengthy action sequences. In the end, the tools for combating confusion can be applied to any bucket. Unfortunately, the only surefire method I’ve found of identifying those areas of puzzlement is to find trusted readers and have them specifically mark where they were confused. Or, after they’ve read it, see if they can explain the rules back to you…or summarize the climatic scene…or describe the subtext of a character’s motivation.

Once you’ve identified problem parts, here are some things to keep in mind as you combat confusion:*

*Please note: I’m not claiming to be an expert at UN-fuddling or anything, but because this is an area that I struggle with, I’m hyper-aware of how others succeed.

Intriguing vs. Confusing
As storytellers, we’re supposed to generate questions in the reader’s mind. However, sometimes those questions are the very things that cause incomprehension. So, what’s the difference between intriguing and confusing? The rule of thumb that I’ve pieced together is that a question that comes BEFORE you’ve tried to explain it is intriguing. It’s only after you’ve unsuccessfully tried to get the answer across that things morph into confusing

C’mon, why not just some exposition?
Seriously, wouldn’t it just be easier for reader and author to just plop down a well-crafted prologue or info dump to get everybody up to speed quickly? Or a quick summary of the action and motivation? Yes, it would be easier. Unfortunately, easy and satisfying are at odds here. Readers love to work at figuring things out, being in the hero’s shoes, and experiencing other’s emotions. Of course, there are times for narratives, as Donna pointed out on Monday – but follow her advice and use it wisely.  

Just leave it out
Readers fill in an amazing number of blanks all by themselves. Often, they don’t need a play-by-play of the quidditch match or a detailed description of each stone in the castle. They assume your character takes bathroom breaks offstage. Stick to the things that provide significance in some way. After you get a good critique from a few people, you’ll notice certain questions arising at the same point – and that’s where you beef up the explanations.

Dumb sidekicks
The dumb sidekick is your character’s best friend, but he’s yours too. This lovable character is actually the voice of your reader. He’ll be asking the right questions at the right times at a pace everyone is able to follow. In reality, the dumb sidekick role doesn’t need to be a sidekick or dumb, but the reader’s questions do need to be represented.

So, what other clarification tools do you have?
*Grabs your shoulders*
Come on, tell me!


As a reader, I am confused when I am not able to talk about a scene or conversation from a story outloud, in my own words. If I read a scene, and I get lost, it's usually because I get caught up in placement of items. If a character is kissing another character and they move their arm up against a wall, and then they use their other hand to hold the person's hand, you obviously have run out of hands to use. What gets confusing sometimes is when the distinction between movements isn't specified. This might just be me, but if you move your arm from the wall to the persons neck, I kind of need to know. I'll be reading a scene and be like, HOW IS THAT HUMANLY POSSIBLE? Is this a paranormal story where the character has three hands?

On the writer side, during peer edits, (I'm probably not the only one who gets aggravated with this) my peers would say my paper/story was "confusing" and when I asked for specification, they said, "In general, ya know?" NO. This confusion I do not know. I could always tell those students/peers who actually read it and those who were just participating for the grade by their feedback. If it was vague, I wouldn't bother responding. But if it looked like something I would have edited, I would take it into consideration.

Anywho, excellent post. Thanks for sharing!

I'm with you, except for the offstage bathroom breaks. I think more characters need to relieve themselves on camera ... or ... er, you know. I'm generally impressed with a book that has its characters stop to take care of business, because it makes them more human. Or whatever they are that still needs to pee.

Post a Comment

Grid_spot theme adapted by Lia Keyes. Powered by Blogger.


discover what the Muses get up to when they're not Musing

an ever-growing resource for writers

Popular Musings

Your Responses

Fellow Musers