As a writer, it can be frustrating to learn that the story in your head is not the same as the story your audience is reading on the page.
Whether it’s a plot point, some description, a character motivation, or even the emotional resonance of a particular scene, there can be something that seems completely clear to you, but falls flat when you share it with your audience.
It’s that dreaded moment when someone tells you that they just didn’t ‘get’ it.
While it’s tempting to ignore that kind of criticism (“You don’t understand my genius!” etc.), it’s worth considering whether you have a problem with the gap. The ‘gap’ of course being whatever was lost in translation between your brain, the page and the reader’s imagination.
This was one of the most important lessons that I took away from Milford. I submitted a short story with a twist ending, and while the story as a whole was positively received, that twist failed to land for most of the group. It turned out that I hadn’t explained the twist as clearly as I thought I had: I’d left some of the details too vague, and had included some dialogue that appeared to contradict the whole point of the twist itself. This left my readers doing too much guesswork; causing them to ask questions or come up with interpretations that I never intended for them to have.
In short, I’d left too large a gap between what I meant, and what I’d written.
The trick to managing the gap is knowing what details you need to make explicit and concrete, and what details you need to omit or leave vague and open to interpretation. And it can be very difficult to figure that out when you’re the one telling the story: you’re so close to what’s going on that you can’t see the wood for the trees.
So if you’re having problems with the gap, take a step back and ask yourself what your goal is: how do you want your readers to feel? What information do they need to know in order to understand what’s happening? Have you conveyed that to them in the simplest, clearest, most evocative way?
Try to put yourself in your reader’s shoes: what questions might you have about the situation being presented? How would you expect the characters to react? What predictions might you make about where the story is headed?
Think about your work at the sentence level: what specific words are you using, and how might a reader interpret them? Ask yourself if there’s any scope for miscommunication.
In most cases, the key is to err on the side of the obvious. If you’re describing a setting, make sure you’ve highlighted a couple of specific, vivid details. If it’s the way a character’s feeling, make sure to show their emotions: let them smile, or cry; give them sweaty palms if they’re nervous, or a red face if they’re angry. For plot points, make sure all the information has been clearly established; start with the most necessary details—the whos, whats, wheres and whys—before you layer up the complexity. And if you’ve left out some of these details, make sure that you’ve done so deliberately.
Of course, the best way to find out how people are reading your story is to actually get people to, you know, read it. But hopefully, if you’ve spent time trying to anticipate your audience, you’ll find that what you’ve written is clear enough to convey everything that you intended.
And if that’s not the case, don’t sweat it! Just ask yourself these questions again, and remember, you can always fix a story in the edit.
Sam Tovey is an English Literature graduate living in Bristol, United Kingdom. He is a Dream Foundry finalist, an alumnus of the Milford SF Writers’ Conference, and has been published in The Colored Lens. You can find more of his work at: www.samtovey.com and follow him on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/toveywrites.