Since shortly after I began writing for publication, around the time in fact that I began receiving edit letters, I became exceedingly aware that vagueness could be a Very Bad Thing.
This hadn’t occurred to me as a writer. Before I wrote (meaning actually finished stories and wondered if someone else might pay me to print them), I existed as a reader. I encountered vagueness but it was in finished books, so I could wonder or marvel or gripe at it, but I couldn’t change anything. It was what it was…speaking of vagueness.
Now I have a better sense of whether an author is vague on purpose. If a character’s dim past is mentioned three times but never revealed, for instance, I’m going to call that a choice. I won’t always be right.
When you’re slogging through the valley of a story, you know what came before – though you can no longer see it – and you have an idea of what should be coming up – though it doesn’t always pan out as planned. So Writer Me (or Writer You, in your case) finishes a story, dusts off and climbs out of the valley, thinking I’ve written something in which A happens so B happens while C is occurring, at which point either D or E must occur – and if it’s D we’re all hosed and if it’s E, then we’ll all party like it’s carnivale meets Mardi Gras (insert action and smexiness as necessary). And that’s when the strangest and most terrifying thing of all happens.
People read the story.
That’s the terrifying part. The strange part is that they come back to Writer Me and say, “What a great/awful/slightly frenetic story of L happening, then M occurring, followed by a great big B, then a lovely little J – however did you think of it?” And I have no answer because I’m frantically scrolling through the manuscript trying to figure out what the hell this person read. Also, I’m jealous because that story sounds far more awesome than what I wrote.
So how does a writer make sure they story she wrote is the story that will be read? The simple answer is that she can’t. Reading is subjective, and while it’s difficult to skew “Dick and Jane run” – even with a plethora of personal experience in Dicks, Janes or running – it become easier the more characters, situations, backgrounds and variables are introduced into a story. And that’s where the challenge lies.
Certain events or elements must be clear in order for the story to make sense.
The reader has to know that Batman was born Bruce Wayne.
The reader has to understand the simple pleasures of daily life in the Shire.
The reader has to know that magic and tech are at odds daily, and sometimes hourly, in Atlanta.
The rest of the story is darkness and clarity. The reader will identify things known to him: certain pop culture references, the taste of unripe grapefruit, how it feels to stand at a bus stop in the rain for so long that you become sure you’re never going to be picked up. And the reader’s mind will fill in the gray areas, whether they are left intentionally or not.
An intentional gray area would be the motivations of the character Mr. Wednesday in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Does he wish good or ill on Shadow, the protagonist? The readers don’t get to step inside Mr. Wednesday’s mind, but we do get to ride about in Shadow’s, and therefore this gray area concerns us. Some readers believe he’s rotten to the core. Others have sympathy for him…I won’t spoil it, but there’s a compelling argument for sympathy.
A potentially unintentional gray area might be the environment. Most of my stories take place in winter. I know what 32 degrees Fahrenheit (freezing point) feels like on bare skin. Many people do. I also know what -50 degrees feels like. I would hazard that most people don’t. I could state the temperature and move on, or I could describe it: the sharp touch and instant shivering; the way that exposed muscles try to curl in on themselves to escape it; how deep the piercing sting of being dropped in lukewarm water after being outside for too long.
Is the temperature important? It’s omnipresent and potentially fatal, so if my characters go outside – and they do, those crazy kids – it’s important.
So vagueness isn’t always bad. Sometimes the details are unnecessary. Sometimes the mystery is intriguing. I’m more aware now of which elements need to be clear to tell the story I intend, which the readers are likely to be able to fill in themselves, and which may require some additional description. Rooms are my nemesis, which is a bit pathetic on my part, but there it is.
I’ve been told I have “white room syndrome”, a terrible affliction in which the places my characters exist are known only to me. I’m working on it. I keep paint and molding and stairs in a little shack in my storytelling valley. It’s a shanty really, a single story of roughhewn wood, with a blackened stovepipe that’s been hammered nearly flat on the south side. Can you see it?