Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Story Structure Three: Clarity

Whenever we write a story, we are writing out a complex mesh of thought processes, trying to describe ideas, voices, and images that occur inside our heads. It's no easy task to distill all these abstract and ephemeral thoughts into plain text. Often, something of the “magic” is lost between thought and word. The better we write, the more of the magic is retained. However, it's not always about the sparkling wonderment of it all. Writing is also about communicating the sense of things, the prosaic elements of a scene.

Because we know what we're trying to say when we sit down to write, we can sometimes fill in a void of logic or description without being aware of it. We can leap to a conclusion that isn't supported by “facts in evidence”, so to speak. These unwarranted leaps of logic can make scenes seem illogical or even foolish, so we read over our work to eliminate them as much as possible.

Some small sins of this type, however, are difficult to detect. That's where a good proofreader comes in. This person doesn't have to be a titan of grammatical prowess or a doctoral candidate in Literature to help you. They just need fresh eyes. You only get one “blind” read of a story. After that, you know what's going to happen, and can use that information to fill in the gaps. It's in the blind read that we gain our most powerful insights about clarity (and many other aspects of the work, as well...but that is another story).

Clarity, at its heart, concerns how closely a reader's understanding of a story matches its author's intent. If your readers are confused about what the story means, what really happened, and how they should react to it, then the story's clarity needs more work. Now, there are shelves full of literary books that have proven great fodder for professors and English majors since their publication. What did the author mean? What did the characters symbolize? These questions can go on and on. There are plenty of places where any story can be left open to interpretation, but in a modern tale, it's probably best to make things reasonably clear cut. Clarity in the actual events and core logic of the story is, to most people, a fairly vital component of good structure.

Macro-scale Clarity:

Here are some questions that a writer should ask concerning the “big” questions of clarity (those at the chapter, segment, and holistic levels):

1)Are the events of the story understandable within the framework I've written?
2)Have I set up events so that they seem to happen naturally, rather than “suddenly occurring for no apparent reason”?
3)Does the plot line of the story make logical sense?
4)Are the consequences of each action reasonable in terms of the setting and tone?
5)Are the actions that resolve the story's consequences well thought-out and logical?
6)Do the characters function within the story without the suspension of disbelief?
7)Do your readers come away from the story feeling the way you hoped they'd feel?

Micro-scale Clarity:

Here are some considerations for the small-scale elements of your story (sentence and scene).

1)Does the flow of dialog make it clear who is speaking?
2)Does the flow of exposition adequately describe the scene, so that a reader can follow the action without having to guess about what's going on?
3)Is it clear who is narrating the story at all times? If you are alternating between points of view, are you clearly marking these changes with a scene break?
4)Are moment-to-moment events sequential and cohesive, so that the reader isn't saying, “Huh? I didn't know that Character X did that? When did Character Y show up?”
5)Are my readers being pulled away from the story by logical inconsistencies, vague descriptions, or missing information?

If you read through this list of questions and find yourself answering “no” to some of them, you may need to work to improve the clarity of your story. On the macro level, make sure that the characters are drawn with an eye to logic, to begin with. If you've got a character whose whole history seems at odds with the narrative of the tale, you'll have an uphill battle ever getting your readers “on board” with that character. If your plot structure includes a lot of “happy accidents” or sudden moments of hypercognitive insight, that's also going to make it difficult for you.

If you're having a tough time with the small scale clarity issues, such as having scenes where it becomes difficult for a reader to understand what is going on, who is talking, etc., you'll want to do a few things. The first of these is to really try and sketch out what will occur in a scene before you start writing. Think about your setting, visualize where the characters are, and see if their movements and actions work. If the scene doesn't play out like a movie in your head, you might have too tenuous a grasp on it. The second thing is to have someone proofread your work, so that the gaps in logic or description will jump out at them. Writing is not as solitary a game as some people think. Most of need a little help from our friends.

Clarity sounds like an easy thing to achieve, but many a writer has had a story go bad because it didn't make sense to her readers. Don't fall into that trap. Make sure that you review your own logic on the big scale and keep an eye on your sentence-by-sentence clarity as well. A good rule of thumb with macro-level stuff is this: “If you have to keep explaining something, it's probably a bad plot point.” For micro-level stuff, the best way to check your own clarity is to let the passage rest for several days before you go in for your first edit. Even better, get a friend to read through it and tell you if he's confused. Don't let clarity problems shoot you down—they're generally fixable, if you have the resolve to tackle problems when you find them.

Next time: Internal Consistency


Paul Genesse said...

Wow, very good and detailed post. I had no idea you wrote such detailed posts on writing. Keep up the good work.

Patrick M. Tracy said...


Glad to see you over here. As soon as I have a good handle on the method by which posts are emailed, I'll put you on my list. I'm going to have a post delivered to my own email first, just to make sure it looks right.

As far as this new little project, I've been working on it for a few weeks now. I thought that it would be a good adjunct to my writing journal, plus make a good "value added" segment for my website. Glad you liked it.