Writing Badly, Well: Use concrete and specific language

This one I’m often being called out for.

The Rule: Use specific and concrete language so your reader is not left guessing what you mean.

The idea: If you are ambiguous in your narrative, it will cause your reader to stop and reread a passage, get lost, or be so confused that they are otherwise taken out of the story. One may think this is true of most readers. That most readers are ADHD-stricken and bobbing between the book in their hand and the 4 screens splashing pretty pictures into the room. But I would argue this is NOT the case.

Counter example: Gone Girl.

In Gone Girl we have two main characters. Both with their own POV. Both are HIGHLY unreliable narrators. Both speak to the reader in very ambiguous language. At no point did the masses say, “No, Flynn! No! I can’t understand your words.” In fact, the only thing that made that book great (or at least pretty good) is that very ambiguity that most writers are afraid of.

Mysteries and suspense novels are built around ambiguity and plays on word choices and pronoun games. An entire genre has been in existence for 100+ years that uses this at its very core.

But what about “normal” writing? Same thing applies.

One of my favorite things to do is to have 2 men (or 2 women) in a room talking and have sparse dialogue tags. I do this very methodically. If the last comment in the scene is “Yes” it may change the scene VERY MUCH based on who said yes. Does it change the outcome of the novel? No. But it could give insight into each character depending on who said it. Do I have to tell you who said it? No. Most readers will imply one speaker or the other.

Probably my FAVORITE example of ambiguity is Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The ending leaves something to be desired, but not so much so that you throw the book. And the reason? Well, the rest of the book, that’s the reason.

My wife and I both read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and STILL to this day argue as to what actually happened. I say Toru went into the well to find himself and never actually came out and probably died in there. Being the all forgiving optimist, my wife thinks that he climbed out of the well and bettered his life based on the conclusions he came to.

Does it piss me off that this happened? Not a chance! I love that it’s such a subtle ambiguity that two readers can both thoroughly enjoy a novel but yet read extremely different story lines from that same text. That takes massive tinkering and planning and mastery on a scale that few have managed. But to experiment and succeed is the point of writing!

Stop being a writer and start being a written storyteller!

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