Interuptions of Inference

It’s important not to interrupt yourself, but it’s even more important not to interrupt the other person. In writing or in speaking, interruptions can be disastrous. Reading isn’t any different, and the dialogue writers hold with their readers is (or should be) as sacrosanct as that which we might have with a friend or close family member. However, those two forms of dialogue hold little else in common.

Their modes differ and take on different forms. I, as the writer, cannot literally stand over your shoulder and tap you, the reader, on the shoulder and interrupt your meditative consideration of the page. We hope not, anyway. If I knew you, it would simply be annoying. If I didn’t, then it’d be creepy. But I digress.

The ways in which writers may interrupt their readers’ experience are many. From a slip in skill to losing the thread of their own plot, failures of craft only succeed in kicking the reader out the door. But, in my experience, there is a very subversive and subtle tick that can best be described as the writer opening the door in a snowstorm. Expected, if a little inherently irritating. You might not even notice it, except in the oblique way that the fluidity of the narrative – and by extension your immersion – is thwarted. Unless you’re paying strict attention, your eyes will just keep on tracking across the words and you’ll take them in but with a little less gusto than you did before.

I am referring to interruptions of inference, when the reader has to stop and unduly consider something the writer has expressed or an image they have attempted to craft. Clarity and elegance are usually the elements lacking. There are, of course, times when the reader must be expected to try and wrap their head around the text. That’s the prime enjoyment in reading literature, considering and digesting complex thoughts. There’s a whole argument to be made concerning the clothing of said thoughts in such wayward and dense language that most readers will have to rope a professor or two into the fray. But, for now, we’ll settle on refraining from the little speed bumps in narration and/or exposition that draw the reader out of the experience.

It’s a delicate art, giving just enough detail but leaving room for the reader’s mind to play in the background. It’s frighteningly easy to give too much and not enough, sometimes at the same time. It’s the description of a ruin without giving reference to the object that has been ruined until later in the process of describing an action in relation to said ruin. Convoluted? Assuredly. Nitpicking often gets convoluted.

So let’s break it down:

A group of thieves are scaling the ruin’s side, say. Finding this and that foothold, climbing to this and that promontory. Then they get to the top and tie themselves off to the temple’s minarets in order to scale down through holes in the roof. Temple? Minarets? Reading this, I would have to infer (read: fill in the blank) that this was a temple all along and its minarets were the true object of the climbers. I might even go back to make sure I didn’t miss anything else that was important about this structure.

Ideally, the author would detail the thieves’ struggles to climb with the weight of the coiled rope on their shoulders and shouted out the presence of the minarets before or during the climb. This gives the objects a precedent and the reader won’t have to stop and read back to see if they missed something or trust the author and quickly infer what the image they’re creating to get on with reading. In either instance, the reader has been booted out of the scene and has to try and get back in again. It’s like the doorbell ringing. Mild annoyance, but an annoyance.

Is this worth paying attention to? Is this nitpicky? Is this convoluted past the point of importance? You could make that argument. But I’d make the argument that the dividing line between good and great is paying attention to this sort of thing, whether from the get-go or in the final draft. And don’t feel like I’m shouting my sermon down from Mount Righteous. That example up there? From the rough draft of a book I’m going back through currently. I’m just as lost as anyone else.

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