July 23, 2009 / 4 Comments

Don’t Get Me Wrong

Several months back a friend of mine was celebrating her birthday in the usual way (with too much alcohol and far too much karaoke) and I got to catch up with a couple of friends I haven’t seen in ages. Contrary to everything Castle has taught us, most working writers don’t have tons of free time, and as such I’m lucky if I get out socially once every two months or so.

We were batting around random stories about the film industry and one of my friends made a comment about last year’s WGA Strike (you may have heard about it). Maybe it was the booze, maybe it was Laura belting out Cake’s “Short Skirt/ Long Jacket” up on stage, or maybe it was just a poorly-emphasized word. Needless to say, I heard an insult and I snapped back a sharp defense of the writers and the strike.

My friend threw up his hands. “Dude,” said he, “you totally took that the wrong way. That is not what I meant.” Yes, he actually said dude.

I looked back over his chosen words, realized the good-natured joke he’d tried to make, and shamefacedly bought the next round as an apology for verbally leaping at him.

The lesson here is twofold. One, always make sure you can afford to buy a round if you go out with friends. Two, if it’s that easy to misinterpret someone’s words in person, face to face, imagine how easy it is to do on the page.

Getting misunderstood is sort of the core flaw of all bad writing. I thought this character looked smart, you think he looks like an idiot. I consider this bit action-packed, you consider it to be chaotic. I felt like the message was clear, you found it to be a muddled mess. Part of this is an empathy issue, but often it’s just a matter of clumsy writing.

Here are a few easy things to check on in your own work to make sure the reader is thinking the same thing you are. Or at least, what you want them to be thinking…

Spelling – I know, I know. I never give up on the spelling Probably because it’s the most common problem I see. I’m not talking about random typos, but words people have just plain spelled wrong or used incorrectly. Know the difference between plane and plain, their and there, corporeal and corpulent. You don’t want your mad scientist to unleash a deadly plaque upon the world, one that will cause mass history.

Alas, there is only one way to beat this. Shut off your spell-checker, pick up a dictionary, and learn how to spell all these words you’re using. Sorry.

Grammar – The British comedian Benny Hill (best known in the US as that late-night guy with the awe-inspiring Hill’s Angels) had a recurring skit about actors who muddled their lines because of an unpunctuated script. Usually they’d end up delivering such zingers as “What’s that up in the road–a head?” or the beautiful woman who asks her partner “What is this thing called, love?” One of my personal favorites as of late was a dedication that read “This book is for my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Commas, capitalization, verb-noun agreement– none of these were made up because editors had nothing better to do one afternoon. They make sure a reader knows precisely what the writer means. Which is why the writer needs to know precisely how to use them. Remember, it doesn’t matter if it makes sense to you. It needs to make sense to an absolute stranger looking at it for the first time.

Common knowledge – One frustrating thing most of us have probably encountered (I know I have) is when a term comes up in a story that the characters all understand but we, the readers, don’t. It could be a joke, a reference, or maybe even a key plot element. Point is, if the reader doesn’t know what the writer’s referring to, it’s just a stumbling block that will knock them out of the story.

If you’re using a term for a certain effect, make sure it’s a term most people know so it can achieve that effect. If I’m told “she’s as mean as a Catachan puffball,” does that mean she’s vicious or is it sarcasm? How many times can my characters refer mysteriously to “Omega” before the reader decides to fold laundry or make lunch? Before you answer, consider this– we’re barely twenty minutes into The Matrix when Morpheus begins to explain the mystery of what the Matrix is.

Sarcasm – We all know sarcasm. As mentioned above, it’s when someone says one thing but means another– sometimes the exact opposite. This can go wrong in real life, so on the page it can be a killer. It can be especially rough in screenplays, which are often so stripped-down that the reader has to make up a lot of the context on their own. If sarcasm is read wrong on the page, it can send the reader down a false path, and once they realize they’re on a false path… well, there’s that large pile on the left.

Be careful using sarcasm too soon in a story. Make sure the reader knows the characters before you risk confusing them.

Language barrier – I mentioned this a while back as a common script problem, but it happens in prose as well. Even when two countries have a shared language, there are colloquial terms that vary. Boot, bonnet, pasties, Macintosh, rubber– all these words mean one thing in the UK and something very different in the US.

Know who your readers are and make sure you’ve adjusted your vocabulary appropriately. Through the wonders of social networks and message boards, most of us know at least one person in another country. If you know someone who’s part of your target audience, ask them to take a look at your writing.

Double meanings – This one’s kind of close to the language barrier. There are a lot of words and phrases that can mean one thing in one context, but something entirely different in another. Which means when there’s not much context, they became dangerously vague. When my boss tells me she’s got an opening that needs to be filled, is she hitting on me or asking if I know anyone who’s not working? What if I see a couple birds twittering in a tree? Are they making noises or social networking? Is that antique ring something wicked (uber cool) or something wicked (pure evil)?

This ties back to vocabulary (which ties back to spelling). A writer has to know what a word means, and also what it could mean. If not, there will be more confusion. And that path leads to pain, suffering, and laundry.

So, there are six quick tips that might help achieve a bit more clarity in your writing. Or at least make sure it’s muddled in all the right places.

Next time I’d like to talk about going from A to B. Or from B to A. You can go both ways, really. We don’t judge here.

Until then, you need to go write. Clearly.