Writing

Seven Common Causes of Reader Confusion

Confusion makes it impossible for readers to enjoy a story, and the unique elements of speculative fiction make it especially prone to confusion. Not only that, but because stories always make sense to their writers, head-scratching moments are difficult to eliminate without outside help. But don’t give up hope! You can identify and mitigate many common causes of confusion as you complete your draft. Watch out for these dangerous habits.

1. Neglecting Context

Throwing the audience right into unfolding action can help immerse them in your story quickly. However, unless the situation is incredibly familiar* to readers, they’ll need your help to understand what’s happening. That help usually comes in the form of thoughts, exposition, or dialogue.

To see what happens when too little context is provided, read this opening to Philip K Dick’s short story Beyond Lies the Wub.

They had almost finished with the loading. Outside stood the Optus, his arms folded, his face sunk in gloom. Captain Franco walked leisurely down the gangplank, grinning.

What Dick doesn’t say is that this is a starship crew on Mars. They just finished loading live animals on their ship to supply for a journey back to Earth.* I wish I could tell you who or what the Optus is, but Dick never explains.

Of course, it’s easy for writers to make the opposite mistake as well. Too much exposition slows the narrative to a crawl. You can avoid boring info dumps by:

  1. Keeping information relevant to what’s happening now. All the extra information I supplied about Dick’s opening is immediately applicable to the events that are unfolding.
  2. Giving information that supports your opening conflict. It could raise the tension or explain the stakes to readers. Dick doesn’t have a strong conflict in his opening; he could both foreshadow one and provide context by making Captain Franco worry that the strange, Martian animals might cause trouble or won’t be enough to feed the crew.

2. Relying on Jargon

While we should avoid inventing new terms when possible, writing in alternate realities means that we’ll inevitably have world-specific terms in our narration. Many of us will have special words for positions of power, novel technology, strange creatures, and more. But when we expect readers to be as well versed in our terminology as we are, confusion results.

You can help your readers navigate your fantastical terminology by:

  • Making sure learning new terms is worth the investment. If the term isn’t used often, consider working around it instead.
  • Clearly introducing your terms. If you don’t have an ignorant character to explain your term to, give the first mention lots of context to help readers extrapolate the meaning.
  • Keeping the training wheels on the first several times you use new terms. Provide extra context or a little explanation.

Rowling’s “muggle” in the Harry Potter series is an example of a strange term used well. The term is clearly explained to Harry and used frequently in the books. Whereas in the book The Lies of Locke Lamora, author Scott Flynch uses invented calendar terms to mark time transitions between scenes. This is the worst place for fantasy jargon; time markers must be clear to prevent confusion. I read three pages into a scene before I realized the main character was now an adult instead of a boy.

If your characters use technical jargon that’s gibberish to readers, carefully explain its implications and offer a meaningful analogy. Star Trek uses these techniques to guide viewers through mountains of technobabble. When Voyager gets stuck in the belly of a space whale, the characters liken creating antimatter explosions to making the ship taste bad. They clarify that this technique requires the coordination of two ships and should result in the beast ejecting the vessels. However, this doesn’t entirely make up for using nonsense science terms. The more understandable and logical you can make your jargon, the better.

3. Vaguely Attributing Thoughts or Actions

Most scenes are formed from the interaction of several characters. Unfortunately, readers can easily mix up who did what in a scene. Check to make sure that:

  • Your dialogue is clearly attributed. While readers can track two characters speaking back and forth for a while without labels, your audience can still get confused if one character says something they expected from the other character or if one character speaks for more than one paragraph. Periodically remind them who is speaking.
  • Actions in the story use active phrasing. The person taking the action should usually be the subject of the sentence. In Beyond Lies the Wub, Dick says “the gun jerked” when he should have said “Captain Franco jerked the gun.” Readers are left to wonder if the gun was jerked via telekinesis.
  • The viewpoint character is obvious. If you need to move from one character’s head to another’s during a scene, you must clearly mark the character and ease into their perspective slowly. In this case, Battlefield Earth actually gives us a positive example of a viewpoint transition, starting with a distant perspective and getting closer: “Char looked at the empty door. The security chief knew no Psychlo could go up into those mountains. Terl really was crazy. There was deadly uranium up there.”
  • Pronouns clearly reference a specific person or thing. If your pronoun isn’t clearly referring to the last matching thing or person, reword your sentence or replace the pronoun with a more specific noun. A sentence like “Raven helped Julia load the ship until her personal alarm rang” is too ambiguous.
  • You aren’t using more than one term for the same thing or person. Avoid alternately referring to a side character by their first name, last name, title, or position. If the readers know a character well, you can slowly slip in alternate references to them. Items and places are rarely important enough to be referred to by multiple terms.

4. Expecting Perfect Memory

No reader can hold the entire text of a novel in their head. Their memory of your story will always be imperfect. For readers to follow a long story, writers should both make their important points more memorable and remind readers of information they’ll need to understand a scene.

You can make elements more memorable by:

  • Showing how they’re important to your story. Details about the horrible events that will take place if the hero fails their mission are a lot more memorable than what the hero ate for breakfast.
  • Spending a little more time introducing recurring items or characters. Describing the appearance of new elements helps cue readers that they will appear again. Work in simple and memorable associations, such as what the character does for a living or a scar over their left eye.
  • Using names and labels that look different from each other. Just making sure all of your character names start with different letters will dramatically reduce how often readers mix them up.

Don’t dump too much information on your readers at once. Info dumps make relevant details feel unimportant, turn iconic markers into just another item on a laundry list, and overload readers’ working memory. Avoid introducing more than two or three characters at once, keep the setting’s layout or scenery simple, and don’t describe every movement from every limb in a fight scene.

In some cases, you’ll need to work around failures of memory. Repeat critical details or complex explanations to the audience. If a stream of dialogue is interrupted by a significant block of text (paragraph length or longer), the characters can’t simply continue talking where they left off. That’s because the reader won’t have the last lines in their head anymore.

Don’t do this:

  1. Character one: Why did you leave early last night?
  2. [Mooks attack; both characters pause to fight them off.]
  3. Character two: I dunno, I felt like it.

Instead you can do this:

  1. Character one: Why did you leave early last night?
  2. [Mooks attack; both characters pause to fight them off.]
  3. Character two: I dunno why I left so early, I felt like it.

5. Poorly Explaining Strange Elements

Speculative fiction is full of magic with arcane rules, technology that breaks the known laws of the universe, and cultures vastly different from our own. Add on the curious events that unfold in most stories, and your work will have a plethora of bizarre occurrences that could confound readers instead of intrigue them.

The first step to minimizing confusion is to make sure that you know how everything works before you write. Storytellers often assume that as long as their plot runs, they don’t need to know what’s happening behind the scenes. But once they’re asked to explain a confusing plot twist, they’ll realize they can’t. You’ll be better off if you reason through the background when your work is in its early stages. We have several articles that can help you think through common problem spots:

Next, look for elements in each scene that require explanation. Start with events or actions that are central to the outcome of the scene and your story overall. In most cases, readers should know:

  • How the characters or world got to the point they’re at in the beginning.
  • What special abilities characters in the scene have or special items they can wield. These can be a surprise as long as you foreshadow them.
  • Why characters are doing what they’re doing and, just as important, why they aren’t doing something that feels like an obvious solution to their problem. This is where limits on magic and technology come in handy.
  • What consequences the characters will face for success or failure.
  • How the outcome at the end of the scene occurred.

If any of these are mysteries to reveal later, you’ll need to clearly mark that for your readers. Sanction uncertainty by acknowledging the puzzle you’ve presented with thoughts, dialogue, or omniscient narration.

6. Giving Important Information Late

Readers are great at supplementing the narratives they read with details from their imagination. This is wonderful; it means you don’t have to describe the color of every bootlace. But the longer those made-up details exist in their minds, the more confusing it becomes when readers discover their head canon is wrong. It may not mean much if a character’s eyes are a different color than they imagined, but if the plot revolves around something that clashes with their own conception of events, readers will struggle with cognitive dissonance.

That’s why you should prioritize the information readers need to know and deliver the important points early. Plot-critical elements and broad sweeps go first; atmosphere-building and small details go after. Follow these tips to better prioritize information:

  • Add plot hooks in order of descending importance. While it’s not possible in every story, ideally the conflict that is most central to the narrative is present in the opening.
  • Introduce central characters first, less important characters after. Readers get attached to characters with early appearances; they’ll feel bewildered if they don’t appear again.
  • When describing new elements, give the broad sweeps first. Point out anything unusual right away. That will keep readers from assuming that the character or item is typical and filling the gaps in your description with mundane details.
  • Pay special attention to anything a character will use to their advantage later. Describe a weapon lying on the ground before a character picks it up or a magnifying glass before a character uses it to set something on fire. Don’t let your scene turn out like the opening of Eragon, where the villain gets a better view by climbing a granite outcropping that did not previously exist.

If you need to introduce critical information late, sanctioning uncertainty will help readers reserve a blank space in their imagination for those details.

7. Misusing Metaphorical Language

Many writers love their medium. We take pride in a particularly well-crafted sentence, and then we hold onto it like hell when an editor tells us to cut it. Unfortunately, our efforts at creative wordcraft can become self-defeating. The more metaphors and poetic language we use, the more we risk confusing our readers. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use creative wording, just that some caution is warranted.

The opening sentences of a story are particularly treacherous in this regard. Writers want their first sentence to impress, but the reader desperately needs to figure out what’s happening. Some writers fall into the trap of revising their opening lines until they are so poetic readers have to read them multiple times. The result looks a bit like these lines from the opening of Battlefield Earth:

The hairy paws of the Chamco brothers hung suspended above the broad keys of the laser-bash game. The cliffs of Char’s eyebrows drew down over his yellow orbs as he looked up in mystery.

You might notice the first sentence is also a case of poor attribution – the paws are taking an action instead of the Chamco brothers. At least we have enough context to know that the “orbs” are eyes. By reading carefully, you can probably figure out what Hubbard is describing, but your opening is the last place you want readers to pause and sort out what you’re saying.

The wrong metaphors can also become distracting to readers. Yes, you can liken a person lying under the covers to the hills and valleys of a scenic landscape, but do you really want readers to be thinking about landscapes instead of your sleeping character? In the above excerpt, how does comparing Char’s eyebrows to cliffs give readers a better picture of what Char looks like? I don’t know what cliff eyebrows are. Maybe they’re just thick?

Too much poetically vague description can lead readers to imagine a very different picture than you intended. For instance, in Terry Brook’s Sword of Shannara, the character Allanon is introduced as a shadow that detaches itself from an oak tree. I thought the character had flown down from the branches and was shocked to learn that Allanon is wingless.


While we’ll all get better with practice, test readers are still invaluable to the writing process. A few test readers can help you learn what sources of confusion you’re prone to and help you catch problems you couldn’t see.

Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.

 

Comments

  1. Bronze Dog

    On going overboard with exposition, I remember reading an example, something like “If a modern story were written like science fiction” where it goes into unnecessary detail about what happens when a character pays for something with a debit card. Now, if your target audience was from an era before computers, it would make sense. But there are a lot of things in sci-fi close enough to the real world. If you have Han Solo firing his blaster, no need to get into how it works unless the difference between a blaster and a good old fashioned slug thrower is significant to the story.

    • Chris Winkle

      Yeah that’s a great piece by Mark Rosenfelder, anyone can read it right here.

      It’s a solid demonstration of how exposition can feel unnatural. At the same time, occasionally in writing spec fic it’s necessary to do a little of that to prevent confusion. But the idea is to keep it down to only what is necessary.

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