C is for Clarity

Hello, and welcome to the April A-Z Blogging Challenge! Over the first 26 days of April, we will explore aspects of writing and marketing books – authors, feel free to weigh in, and readers, feel free to observe and ask questions!

-M

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Clarity is a tricky subject. It’s highly lauded, but after all, one can have the most clarity in the world around what one is writing, and then see the reviews and find out no one seems to see it the same way. Hazard of the trade, that (if it can happen to Bradbury, it can happen to any of us). And on the other hand, there are stories in which one wishes to mislead and obfuscate. So what’s this about clarity? Like an anti-hero, do you actually need it?

Sometimes.

I’m going to start right up front with where you don’t actually need clarity: theme. Having now ducked under the desk to avoid the howls of writing instructors everywhere, let me explain. Theme is great. You want a theme. You want to know what your theme is, and write to it! I agree. Unfortunately, I’m going to go ahead and warn you that not all of your readers will agree with you about what the theme is.

And there’s no way to avoid that. Some authors try, and go way overboard attempting to ensure that no other meaning than their intended one may be taken from the book – and frankly, those books suck. The author explains the theme, again and again and again, and the book winds up heavy handed, with a lot of readers that fled for the hills as soon as they saw what was going on.

So if your story’s theme is why puppies are inescapably, entirely evil, for the love of little green apples, structure your story to convey this without any extra help from you. (Also, what have you got against puppies?) And no matter how well you’ve structured it, be prepared for someone to take you aside and tell you how wonderful it is that you wrote about the ingenuity and heroism of kittens. In fact, prepare for someone to take you aside and tell you that they’re so glad you came up with the perfect metaphor to describe globalization.

The first rule of clarity is that people may not agree with you about the Big Picture of what you were trying to say, and this is generally all right. Try to roll with it.

There are times, however, when you absolutely do need clarity, and these times are the smaller, more immediate matters than theme:

  • You want your readers to know who’s undertaking an action (tap-dancing, stabbing, flying, etc)
  • You want your readers to know who you’ve just modified with an adjective or adverb (withering, secretly, moose-like, etc)
  • You want your readers to know what, in fact, just happened (if no one knows your protagonists turned into pandas, the rest of your book will just be confusing)

As perhaps should be clear from the above three, you also need to know for yourself who’s doing what, who’s being modified, what just happened, and probably where everyone is at the time (especially if you’re writing a book with a mystery). In fact, you’ll have an extremely difficult time providing clarity to others without having it yourself. So, the second rule of clarity is to know what you’re trying to say.

Note that what you’re trying to say may actually be intended to throw your reader off the scent, or simply create enough relevant-sounding white noise that a reader can understand what’s going on in the moment, but not how it relates to the whole. Four of the best examples I know would be Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey, Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson, The Devil in Music by Kate Ross (actually, that’s the last in the series, and the first is A Cut to the Quick), and Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. They show the third rule of clarity, which is know what you want the readers to think has occurred.

The trick, with clarity, is that the reveal must be somewhere. Whether your readers come out of the story believing that its main theme was genetic engineering, or the importance of potassium, or whatever, they should at least be able to identify what events took place. And here’s where the truth gets hard to hear, authors, but you had better believe that it will set you free nonetheless: readers are the final arbiter of whether or not a book had clarity. This is why you have editors and/or beta readers. I really do recommend beta readers (well, I also recommend editing, but I’ll get to that in two days, when we hit E), and furthermore, I recommend taking their advice around clarity.

But my way was more elegant. If they don’t know what happened, does it matter? But they should understand, it’s clear as day. They didn’t. Well, maybe it’s not for everyone. No book is, but limiting your market with an intelligence test of your own devising is a recipe for disaster. Spelling it out ruins the whole book. Almost certainly not true. Brainstorm, revise, re-beta.

So there you have it, readers. Clarity. Authors? Readers? Anything to add or contest? Comment below!

 

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