Guest Post - Karin Lin-Greenberg
Craft Lesson: Confusion Isn’t Mystery
For years I’ve been giving my fiction-writing students an exercise about ambiguity, mystery, and confusion. I came up with this exercise because I kept seeing drafts in which the students withheld critical information readers needed in order to understand the story that was being told.
First, I give students these paragraphs to examine:
Mark looked around him. The room was cold. White. There were machines hooked to him. They beeped. He felt horrible. Absolutely horrible. Lots of parts of his body hurt. He was in pain from what had happened. There was no one in the room but him. No one was visiting. Or maybe they all were dead.
This aloneness left him time to think. He thought about a lot of things. He thought about what had happened. He thought and thought, his mind racing, images flooding through his mind. He couldn’t remember very much, but he remembered enough.
He looked at the paintings on the wall. They were generic paintings of flowers. He felt the rough blanket that covered him. It was an okay blanket because it was warm enough. He liked his down comforter at home better, though. He looked at the pitcher of water by his bedside. It was beige and he thought the water inside might be cold. He wasn’t sure, though; he hadn’t had any water yet. Maybe he would have a drink. Maybe he wouldn’t. Only time would tell.
I ask them what’s wrong with it, and usually a hand shoots up and the first student to respond says the language is choppy. “Okay, sure, the language is choppy,” I say. “But what’s the real problem here?” Oftentimes, the students don’t perceive an issue with this scene beyond the choppiness of the prose. The class pauses for a bit. What is wrong, they’re thinking. After all, doesn’t it make you want to read on to find out what’s going on?
Finally, someone says, “That stuff in the last paragraph, is it actually important?”
“Right, right!” I say. “Do we care about the painting and the blanket and the water?”
“No,” they say, “those things don’t seem that important.” But then my students are kind and charitable, and they suggest that maybe these details will become important later. Maybe they’re there for a reason? I tell them there’s no real indication in what we have so far that these details—these objects—carry any significance for the plot or the character.
“Look closely. What are those details really doing?” I ask them.
“They’re kind of causing a traffic jam in the story. Like we’re sitting around waiting to find out what happened, and the author is making us wait,” someone will note.
“So is this a good thing?” I ask.
“Maybe it kind of stretches out when you’ll find out what’s going on?” someone will say. “Maybe it makes you want to read on?” From their faces, I can tell they’re still unconvinced there’s really a problem with the paragraphs I’ve given them.
“Do you really want to read on?” I ask.
“Well,” someone will say, “it’s kind of . . . annoying. Like we want to know what’s happening and the author is describing a blanket.”
“What are the mysteries here?” I ask.
The students will list lots of things: what happened, where Mark is, what Mark is thinking about, what physically hurts, who the others are, who might be dead.
“When do you think it would be useful to know this information?” I ask.
“By the end?” someone will say.
“By the end of the entire story?” I ask. (And I should note that although this is something I see happening often at the beginnings of stories and novel chapters, it’s also something I see happening anytime a scene starts.)
Usually no one answers for a few moments. Then someone will ask whether it’s good to make readers wait, to make them go through a couple pages to find out what happened to Mark.
“What’s the mystery here?” I ask. “Is it about what happened to Mark?”
I can tell they’re not sure yet. Maybe that is the mystery. Maybe after a few pages we’ll find out what happened to Mark. And then the story can end. We find out what happened, mystery solved, the end. Right?
“Okay, yeah,” I say, “that’s one way to handle the story.” But then I have them read a revised version of the same scene:
Mark woke up in a bed in the hospital. The room was cold and machines beeped around him. His legs hurt. He looked down and saw both of his legs were in casts. His chest hurt, too. He lifted his hospital gown at the neck and looked and saw bruises covering his chest. He remembered the car accident. It had been his fault. The roads were wet—it had been raining all night while they were at the party where he’d drank too much—and he shouldn’t have tried to drive home. And what about the others? Where was his girlfriend, Susan? She’d been sitting in the passenger’s seat. Where was his roommate, Tom? The last thing Mark remembered seeing in his rearview mirror was Tom, lounging in the back seat, his long legs folded against the door of the car. Were they okay? What had happened to them when the car had skidded off the road?
“What changes do you notice in this draft?” I ask.
Hands shoot up: We know where Mark is. We know some backstory about how he got to this place. We know what’s happened to him. We know who he was with. We know he isn’t sure what happened to Susan and Tom. We know that Mark feels some guilt about what happened.
“Now we know much more. And we know it right away. We get all this information in just one paragraph,” I say.
At this point they’re nodding. It’s starting to make sense. They’re starting to see that the point of a story isn’t—or shouldn’t be—confusion or unproductive ambiguity.
“So let’s talk about point of view for a minute,” I say. We talk about how this snippet is in third person limited. We’re attached to Mark’s point of view. The third person limited narrator knows (or should know) what Mark knows. “Look back at the first draft,” I tell them. “Explain why it’s a violation of point of view.”
Someone will point to this section: “This aloneness left him time to think. He thought about a lot of things. He thought about what had happened. He thought and thought, his mind racing, images flooding through his mind. He couldn’t remember very much, but he remembered enough.”
“What’s happening here?” I ask.
“Well,” a student will say, “the narrator is kind of messing with us. The narrator is saying that they know what’s going on in Mark’s head, but they’re withholding the content of those thoughts from us.”
“Exactly!” I say. “So you see how this is a manipulation?”
They nod. The second version lets the reader know what Mark knows. It also tells the reader what Mark feels, both physically and emotionally. I tell them maybe the manipulation in the first draft is intentional; maybe the author thinks the reader will keep reading in order for the basic facts of the situation to be revealed. Or maybe it’s accidental. Oftentimes a scene is so vivid in the writer’s head that she forgets to actually put what she knows on the page.
“What’s the unknown information we expect the second version to reveal as the story goes on?” I ask.
Now the students say the story will reveal what happened to Susan and Tom. And maybe we’ll find out some more about Mark’s physical condition, whether it’s something that will sideline him for a long time. And it’s likely that this story will deal with the emotional aftermath of the accident.
It’s clear now that the second beginning is better. The writer is no longer holding back and the true conflicts of the story are quickly established. There’s not just ambiguity here for the sake of making the reader wonder what’s going on, but there are productive questions raised. What is unknown—the fate of Susan and Tom and how Mark will recover—are things Mark doesn’t know the answers to at this moment. There’s true suspense now about the fate of the characters, instead of a false suspense created by the writer’s withholding of information.
At this point, I give my students an exercise, and I’m always impressed by what they come up with. Now they’re keeping their eyes open for places in their writing where they might be withholding critical information, and they understand that the point of fiction isn’t to create confusion for the sake of confusion (or with the hope that the confusion will make the reader read on). Here’s the exercise if you want to try it out too:
Exercise: Rewrite one of the following scenes using specific details and eliminating ambiguity. Create specific characters, create specific settings, and please eliminate the sense of melodrama that comes with these narrators simply talking about emotions without giving readers any context for the emotions. Don’t use stalling tactics (like the painting, blanket, and water in the first hospital scene); quickly let readers know what’s at stake for the character.
- I loved him with all my heart. There had been years of stuff between us, some good, some bad, but through it all, I loved him. And now, today, was a monumental occasion. I had a decision to make. Should I do it? Should I hold back? There was the information I had, of course, that I’d protected, that I’d held close to my heart all these years. What would I do? What could I do? I felt tortured with indecision.
- I sit in this place, overwhelmed by great sadness. I can feel the sadness course through my soul. I weep for what has happened in the past and for what will happen in the future. My sadness is great and unwieldy and I know it will plague me for the rest of my life.
Karin Lin-Greenberg's stories have appeared in literary journals including The Antioch Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Crazyhorse, Epoch, Five Chapters, Kenyon Review Online, and North American Review. She lives in upstate New York and is an associate professor in the English Department at Siena College.