Keeping the reader guessing (new post on my website)

Please go to CarolLouiseWilde.com to read this new Conversational Wordsmith blog post, in which I discuss several approaches to keeping readers guessing (plot twists, withholding information, misdirection, and deliberate obscurity) – along with my take on how effective they are and some of the problems I see if they’re not done well.

There is now a way to sign up on my website for email notifications about future posts, so I invite you to do that while you’re there if you’re interested. I really am hoping to close down this blog (the one you are now reading) some time next month.

Does Genre Fiction Need a Theme?

I’ve read and heard a lot of advice to writers over the years, and the word “theme” has cropped up a number of times. It was listed, for example, among the things that should be found in the first two pages of your story. Really? I mean, I’ve always associate the idea of having a theme with fiction of the more literary sort, but I write genre fiction. I kept wondering; does genre fiction need to have a theme?

I think the short answer is no. All genre fiction has to do to be successful with readers is to meet the expectations of the sub-group of readers who read books of that particular genre. And if those readers don’t expect a theme, then you don’t need to have one. A mystery is a story-puzzle wrapped around some hopefully interesting characters. Theme needed? No. A romance doesn’t need any other theme besides the obvious one of romantic love that defines the genre. Fantasy readers expect to be transported beyond the boundaries of their mundane existence, and science fiction readers are looking for a provocative “what if” to bend their minds. Conclusion? Genre stories don’t need no stinkin’ theme!

So why am I writing this? Because I’m a natural-born worry-wart and my brain wouldn’t put the idea down. And the thing is, when I took a hard look at my seven-book fantasy series, The Nagaro Chronicle, with the theme-idea in mind, darned if I didn’t find some! This, even though I hadn’t set out to put one in. The Chronicle follows its main character, Nagaro, across ten years of his life, and he’s a man with a destiny who doesn’t know it. Something had to drive the character, so I made sure there were things that mattered to him – things like honor and using his gifts to do good in the world – and these concepts became threads that are now integral to the character and his story. They run throughout the entire series. And I think the series is the better for it.

I’m not saying that having a theme turns my work into great literature, but it does provide a cohesiveness, perhaps a little more depth, and a feeling of enhanced meaning. It also contributes to the work’s unique flavor and finally gives me a nut-shell description that could help potential target readers identify with my work. When I tell them the series has themes of honor and altruism, I know it will resonate with some readers and I hope they’ll be more likely to buy that first book. Readers who don’t care for heroes who are too “nice” may also be motivated to steer clear – which reduces my risk of getting unenthusiastic reviews from folks who just aren’t part of my target audience.

I don’t think you can just slap a theme on top of an existing manuscript, or poke a few holes and try to insert one. Themes have to be organically part of the story. But if you see the seeds of a theme in your work as you’re writing it – or find one trying to emerge while doing revisions – I’m suggesting that you nurture it. And also that you find a way to work it into your cover blurb.

What do you think? Am I onto something, or off-base? Any genre works with themes that you can point to? Do they benefit from having one? How about your own work?

This blog is moving to my author page

This blog is moving to my author page at carollouisewilde.com. (The name is my maiden name and it seemed appropriate to use it for my fiction, most of which has roots going back well before I was married.)

For some time I’ve been quietly working on a series of fantasy novels set in a world I invented many years ago. There are seven books in the series, which is called The Nagaro Chronicle and features themes of honor and altruism. The first book, Gift of Chance, is due to come out in 2015, and it is time to refocus my efforts around that event.

I thought I could maintain the blog in both locations, but I couldn’t find a way to conveniently post to both simultaneously – and posting everything twice is proving too burdensome. Most of the existing posts are already at carollouisewilde.com, along with all your wonderful comments. I intend to shut this site down as of the end of this year – assuming the author website is up to snuff. (It is already open.)

If you’ve enjoyed my posts, I hope you’ll follow me to the new location. If that doesn’t work for you, I want you to know I sincerely appreciate the interest you’ve shown over the years. To those who have commented, I’ve enjoyed our conversations. You’ve kept me going.

Best wishes to you all.

 

Fear in Fiction

Fear is often treated in fiction as if it were just a weakness — a deficiency of the thing we call “courage” – and something that should be overcome at all costs. This overcoming of fear is an extremely frequent theme in all forms of storytelling, and the approach to overcoming fear that is depicted is almost always one in which the character confronts his or her fear, beats it, and is never troubled by it again. This is a convenient and compelling scenario which allows a rapid, dramatic solution to a problem. It has the further attraction that the hero or heroine must use courage to arrive at the solution.

This cliché is so ubiquitous that most people don’t realize it is a cliché. They think it’s an accurate representation of how fear works and how fear should be dealt with. Psychologists have a name for this confrontational approach: It’s called “flooding,” and they don’t recommend it. They don’t, for the simple reason that it’s all too possible for the fear to “win” the confrontation, making the person’s problem worse, not better. The recommended approach for overcoming inappropriate fears is called “desensitization” and consists of approaching the fear in a series of small incremental steps that can take quite a long time to achieve their goal. It’s pretty easy to see why that approach isn’t popular with fiction writers. You do see it used occasionally in fiction, usually when the fearful person is depicted as inherently weak, such as a small child or a traumatized person. Heroes don’t do it this way, however. To be a fictional hero one must take the plunge.

Everything I know about fear indicates that the view of it as a weakness or a deficiency of courage is fundamentally inaccurate. Fear is functional. It’s a protective mechanism that evolved to help keep us safe and frequently serves us well. Fear undoubtedly saves countless lives every day as it motivates people to avoid dangerous situations and behaviors. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, reacting naturally to that motivation was probably beneficial most of the time, or at worst, harmless. Our modern world differs vastly from the one we evolved to inhabit, however, and some of our fears have become inappropriate as a result. There are also a number of recognized disorders involving the fear mechanism, ranging from free-floating anxiety to simple phobias, to panic attacks – some of which may be exacerbated by the complex demands of our modern society.

Fear is known to have a biological mechanism involving specific brain regions and neurotransmitters. The same cannot be said for courage. It’s difficult, in fact, to say what “courage” actually is. Much of what passes for courage is really fearlessness. Real life “heroes” who rescue other people from danger frequently report that they didn’t think, but “just did it.” In that moment of impulse it’s doubtful they were experiencing fear. Daredevils and thrill-seekers routinely take on dangerous feats because it gives them a “rush,” which I can only assume is not the same thing as what I call fear.

According to my best understanding, the fear-overcoming type of courage consists of the ability, in a specific situation, to marshal mental motivators of sufficient number and potency to outweigh the power of the fear response that the brain is experiencing. And there is simply no guarantee that any particular person will be able to do that in any given situation. I conclude that we are far too free with the “coward” label, especially when anxiety disorders are estimated to affect 20% of the population.

We’ve probably all heard the adage, “to be brave one must first be afraid.” Yet fear has such a negative perception in our culture that we continue to admire fearlessness and look down on those who show fear. Further, the adage implicitly assumes that being “brave” is the desirable response. Writers of fiction (and nonfiction) frequently contribute to this bias. They love to make antagonistic characters ultimately turn out to be “cowards,” even as the protagonist turns out to be “brave.” It’s often assumed that we will judge characters negatively or positively based on how they respond to danger – and that we are right to do so.

If we truly wish to help people who suffer from inappropriate fears, an excellent place to start would be to resist this cultural bias that automatically dumps on fear and on the people who experience it or are overcome by it. We can counter the inaccurate assumption that one must always face fear head-on and the cavalier notion that a “courageous” person can always will it away. Fiction writers can help by seeking to portray fear more realistically. Readers can take writers to task for failing to do so.

I invite your comments.

Can fiction change the world?

Ray Bradbury once said that he wasn’t trying to predict the future; he was trying to prevent it.
Everyone accepts that nonfiction books can be very influential, but does fiction ever change the world? Well, I think it can—by changing awareness or attitudes. Usually, when it happens, that was the author’s intent. I believe Charles Dickens hoped to improve the lot of London’s poor by presenting their plight to the readers of his Victorian tales—such familiar works as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was clearly intended to influence attitudes towards slavery during the period leading up to the American Civil War. It’s generally credited with having some impact. (It was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, although it’s now often derided for its sentimentality and its stereotypes.) Other influences were not intentional: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have probably influenced the development of forensic science, although Doyle had no such intention.

Even if a book doesn’t change the world, it may still change someone’s life. Most writers of fiction are working from a desire to entertain – or, in a mundane sense, to sell books to readers. Readers simply won’t buy books if they aren’t entertained by them. Writers may also be driven by an urge to create, the need to respond to their innate desire to tell a story. But what makes a book entertaining? What makes a story a good story? I think ultimately it is the human element. The writer takes a character and puts him or her in a situation, and then proceeds to describe the consequences of what the character does. The up-shot may not be earthshaking, but it must at least ring true. For any given person reading that story, the truth it contains may resonate in a special way – a meaningful or a helpful way. That may not be why writers write, or why readers read; it’s just an inescapable byproduct of the whole activity. And once in a while a work of fiction may just capture the mind of a generation and take it somewhere it otherwise would not have gone.

Well, maybe that’s going a little far. But I don’t think fiction writers should be put down for engaging in a “trivial” activity. I don’t think they should sell themselves short. After all, you just never know.

What do you think? Ever want to change the world? Can you think of a fiction work that has done that? Is there one that has changed you?

Lessons in the Past Perfect 5: Backstory

If you write fiction, sooner or later you,re going to have to deal with backstory. Backstory is all the past history of the characters, setting, and situation that happened before the story begins. While writers may imagine more backstory details they actually use, they’re going to have to convey enough of the details to allow the reader to understand the story, the character’s motivations, etc. Since backstory is in the past, by definition, relative to the story action, it’s pretty hard to deal with—correctly, at least—without using the past perfect tense. On the other hand, long explanatory paragraphs in past perfect are just the kind of thing that gives this verb tense a bad name, because of all those had’s.

Long paragraphs of backstory are often called “info-dumps,” and widely considered to be no-no’s. The truth, however, is that long paragraphs of any kind can be a problem, and an info-dump—to my way of thinking—is any delivery of backstory that is intrusive or awkward or badly-done. “Work it into the story” is a common suggestion for avoiding info-dumps, but I’ve seen that done badly, too, with bits of backstory inserted seemingly at random with too little continuity and very little relation to the specific context in the story where they are placed. Backstory delivery should be on a need-to-know basis.

If you’re setting up a fantasy world, an alien planet, a future setting, etc, your readers need to know a lot up front. You may need some fairly concentrated chunks of backstory and you shouldn’t shrink from the use of a few had’s. Don’t overload your readers with too much information, of course, but don’t starve them either.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to keep your need for “had” to a minimum. You should just try to do it legally. And if you bend the rules, never sacrifice clarity.

Here are some things to remember:

Habitual actions don’t require the past perfect tense, as long as they are continuing habits. The same applies to statements of the status quo. They cover the past and the present.

John always took a walk in the park on Sunday afternoons. (He did then, and still does.)

The anti-blasphemy laws infiltrated every aspect of people’s lives and were rigorously enforced. (This is the current state of affairs and has presumably been going on for some time.)

In a sentence with a compound past perfect verb, you only need to use “had” once:

The effects of the potion had confused her. She had lost her way and wandered into the magician’s trap. (Only two had’s, not three.)

Also, use of phrases in the progressive tense or the infinitive can dilute the past perfect:

The effects of the potion had confused her, causing her to lose her way and wander into the magician’s trap. (Only one had.)

Past events referred to in dialog use the simple past tense:

“Remember, I went all the way to the other end of the earth to get that thing.” “Yes, and you nearly got killed half a dozen times along the way. First there were the hostile natives who ambushed you. Then a leopard pounced out of a tree…” (etc.)

But beware of the “dialog info-dump.” You’ve all seen or heard these, where a character starts spewing details that would be common knowledge to all the other characters present and that no one would actually say. This feels completely unnatural and is very distracting.

If you really want to ditch the past perfect, do make liberal use of time tags to ensure clarity:

A century ago, that just wasn’t how things were done. Divorce carried a significant stigma at that time, which explained why Joshua remained in his loveless marriage to Anna and why the daughter Suzette bore to him grew up without knowing who her father was. (I would probably go to past perfect in the next sentence, unless I could work in another time tag.)

Breaking up a stretch of backstory by intercutting it with current action can work very well—if carefully done. Typically, a character is reminiscing about the past while passively watching some event or engaging in some simple, straightforward activity. The main pitfall comes from failing to be scrupulously clear about which bits are present and which bits are past. This is not the place to scrimp on past perfect or on time tags. Place and season and other diagnostic details can also help clue the reader as to what is ongoing action and what is backstory.

Rigo watched the muster of the troops from the balcony of the Winter Palace in Orman. There were too few of them and they moved stiffly, their uniforms inadequate against the cold. Many of them were also feeling the stiffness of old wounds. As he watched, Rigo couldn’t help remembering a different muster, in a different place and time. It had been spring then in Astergard, a hopeful season, and there had been many more men marching to the drums with a spring in their step. They had thought they were going out to put down a little rebellion—they’d be back in a week. That had been two years ago, before the death of the king, the fall of the capital city, and the overrunning of half the kingdom by “rebels” who had turned out to be the magically-conjured minions of the mysterious Mage-Lord. On the balcony, Rigo shivered as snow began to fall. Below him, the young prince—far too young, too green—rode out to review his troops. (You get the idea. I could go on, making up more details of the present situation and more details of its history, and alternating them.)

One thing not to do, is to put the first couple of sentences in past perfect and then lapse back into simple past without using clarifying time tags. You may know what you mean, but readers can easily be confused, especially early in the story when they don’t know enough to make accurate guesses. Ideally, readers should never have to guess at things you intend them to understand.

But, enough.

Has this been useful? Do you have tips of your own to offer? I’d be glad to hear them.

Writing and the Unconscious Mind

Do you ever walk away from your car in a parking lot, then stop and go back to check because you can’t remember locking it—only to find that you evidently had? Do you ever do something and wonder why you did it? Have you ever agonized over some problem for hours and finally given up, only to have the answer come to you some time later out of the blue while you’re doing something else entirely? Or, if you’re a writer, would you swear that your mind works on your story behind your back or while you’re asleep? All of these are examples of your unconscious mind in action.

Some recent events have motivated me to look into what is known about the subconscious mind. Among other things, this involved using PubMed, the search engine of the National Library of Medicine, to look for relevant published papers on the subject. The first thing I learned there is that the term “unconscious” seems to be what is used in academic discussions, not “subconscious,” so that’s what I’m going to use here.

It seems the unconscious mind is credited with a large measure of our creativity, especially when it comes to certain kinds of problem-solving. And it definitely works behind your conscious back, and while you’re asleep. I’ve actually seen it recommended that people put their work aside, after first examining all the relevant data, and go do something completely unrelated—even something frivolous—to give their unconscious mind time to work on the problem.

Of course you never know what your unconscious mind is up to—by definition—because it is unconscious. And I’m sure this explains why writers sometime feel they are “channeling” their characters, or that the world they’ve invented must actually exist somewhere. It probably also explains the Greeks’ invention of the Muses. It was their way of dealing with the sense that creative inspiration came to them from somewhere outside of their conscious selves.

And there’s more—and this is where it really gets freaky. Your unconscious mind is fully capable of initiating and carrying out actions using your body without any conscious input. In fact, this is apparently one of its principle functions—and not one it shares with your conscious mind. Yes, that’s right: Your conscious mind is not actually in charge of moment-to-moment decisions and actions, it only thinks it is. Research shows that the preparation in your brain to take action precedes your conscious awareness of having decided to act—by about 300-400 milliseconds. The decision, therefore, must have been made unconsciously.

But how can that be? (you protest)  That’s not how it feels!
Ah, yes, I know. But what about those things you find yourself doing “automatically,” or without thinking about it. Mostly they’re pretty basic, routine things—the unconscious excels at those. But every once in a while, don’t you do something really inexplicable and find yourself asking, “Now why on earth did I do that?” I know I do.

Here’s the deal: Your conscious mind may not be in charge, but it does have influence. For one thing, it has veto power over unconscious decisions, which it can exercise in the split-second window (150-200 milliseconds) between becoming aware of the decision and the action actually being carried out. In other words, “will power” is actually “won’t power.” (No, I won’t say that word, pull that trigger, take that second chocolate chip cookie…) And your conscious mind also indirectly influences the choices your unconscious makes by imagining simulations of possible outcomes—good or bad—to hypothetical actions. That, in fact, is apparently one of its main functions. Unlike the unconscious mind, which “lives” in the moment, the conscious mind can remember the past in order to learn its lessons, or imagine the future to suggest things that might come to pass. Which means that your conscious self has the opportunity to persuade your unconscious. Most of the time, if the advantages and disadvantages are pretty obvious, your unconscious is probably going to be pretty much of a pushover.

Suppose you look in the refrigerator, see the empty shelf, and think, “Gee, if I don’t go to the store there won’t be any milk for my cereal in the morning.” If, shortly thereafter, you grab the car keys and drive to the grocery store to buy milk, you may be forgiven for assuming that you consciously made the decision to make that shopping trip.

To get back to the matter of writing, it seems to me that this function of exploring possibilities by spinning hypothetical scenarios makes your conscious mind a natural born story-teller. Your unconscious mind? Not so much, despite its vaunted creativity. Which, in turn, means that writing is of necessity a collaborative venture between your two minds. There’s another reason for this as well: Your unconscious can only process one word at a time (according to my sources). Handling language at the level of sentences is another primary function of the conscious mind—possibly why it evolved in the first place.

So if you’re stuck on some aspect of your story, it may mean that your conscious mind needs to take a break to let your unconscious work on the problem. And if you’re having trouble getting yourself to put your butt in the chair, it may mean your conscious mind needs to be a little more persuasive…

That’s more than enough.

Thoughts anyone? Got any good stories about things your unconscious mind has done to you? Or is this just another load of manure?

 

In Defense of Fantasy

fantasy landscape

fantasy landscape (Photo credit: sekundo)

As writers go, fantasy writers don’t get a lot of respect in this world. Genre fiction in general doesn’t get a lot of respect outside the circles of those who read it or write it—unless of course someone manages to write a bestseller and make a lot of money. That always seems to be okay with people.

I think fantasy in particular just seems frivolous to many people. There’s also the sense that it’s a form of escapism, which some people see as a weakness. I could defend the escapist aspect of fantasy on the grounds that it exercises the imagination. You may or may not think imagination is an important thing to exercise, but that’s not actually where I want to go with this post. (I already explained in a previous post that I believe storytelling developed in humans because it’s useful, and that exercising the imagination is part of that.)

I have a more fundamental point to make here: There’s an element of fantasy in all fiction. Otherwise, it would be nonfiction. In order to create a work of fiction, a writer has to reach beyond what exists or has existed in terms of characters and events. What fantasy writers—and also science fiction writers—do that sets them apart most from other fiction writers is they also venture beyond the known in terms of setting. Characters and events can also be fantastic, of course, but for writers in the fantasy and sci-fi genres setting is fair game and often a large part of the fun. (Fantasy and science fiction tend to grade into each other and are often lumped together, so I don’t particularly try to separate them here.)

Now, I’m sure a lot of the fantasy and sci-fi fans out there are saying, wait a minute! Just because our writers make up a lot of stuff doesn’t mean they don’t have to worry about making things be true to life. Characters still have to be believable in their reactions to those fantastic events. Outside the boundaries of any magic involved, the laws of physics still have to apply. And of course this is the other half of my point. There has to be something in the story that is congruent with the reader’s experience. Otherwise, there will be nothing for him or her to relate to and no reason to be interested in the story.

So, my point is: All types of fiction must contain both elements that are novel (that’s why it’s called a “novel”) and elements that are familiar. Fantasy is just one end of a continuum, one that allows the mind a particularly free rein—at least potentially. Fantasy, like any genre or class of fiction, has its own conventions and tropes. There are in fact sub-genres within fantasy, and within science fiction, each with its own conventions which may be unfamiliar or even distracting or annoying to other readers. But the best of fantasy, like the best of any type of fiction, is not blandly conventional. Rather, it stretches that envelope. It gives us visions either strange or wonderful, because it is fantasy, but it also provides us a glimpse of uncompromising truth.

There’s nothing wrong with “telling” – or with adverbs

When it comes to good writing, there’s only one rule that counts: Whatever you do, don’t do it badly.

It’s true but it doesn’t offer much help to the novice writer, and that has a lot to do with the current proliferation of “rules” for writing. People who feel they can distinguish between good and bad writing try to figure out what makes the difference. When they spot something they can put a finger on, they put out a “tip” or a “pointer” – only to have all the desperate would-be writers pounce on it and put it on a pedestal.

Example: It is true that some cases of bad writing are “bad” because they use adverbs badly. This has been turned into a “rule” that one should avoid adverbs like the plague. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs. Adverbs are useful. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have them. Like everything else, though, they have to be used well. You have to think when you use adverbs… or adjectives… or verbs… or pronouns…

Consider this: “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” is not at all the same without the adverb (setting aside the question of the split infinitive). Some would argue that the writer should have used a more colorful verb than “go” so that “boldly” would not have been necessary. Maybe: “to venture where no one has ventured before?” Or, “to stride where no one has stridden before?” Honestly, I don’t see the improvement.

Then there’s “show, don’t tell.”

There is a literary style of story-telling in which the writer tries to avoid explicitly “telling” the reader what the characters are thinking or feeling – or what is significant in ongoing events – or even what is actually happening. Instead, he or she tries to “show” us these things by providing the clues, the bits of evidence. From these, we are supposed to figure it out. The character’s exact choice of words, his facial expression or body language, is supposed to “show” us what he is thinking or feeling. When well done, it can undeniably be an impressive feat.

This approach is best suited to stories that are small in scope and take place in contexts that are familiar to the reader. That way the writer can focus his energy – and expend his words – on detailing all those clues and bits of evidence.

The approach is not well suited to sweeping sagas, or futuristic or historical epics, or any story that requires large amounts of back-story or “world-building.” When there’s just plain a lot of story to tell, showing everything takes too long.

This is not to say that showing isn’t important. You may not need or want to show everything, but you should show the important stuff. The principle is the same as in writing an essay: If you want your story to be convincing, you must illustrate your points. In fiction, the important things include critical attributes of character, significant features of the setting, crucial events, etc. These things need to be illustrated. If your character is supposed to be a brilliant military strategist, you had better show him strategizing brilliantly. If it’s important to your story that the nobles are oppressing the peasants, there should be some visible acts of oppression. If the temperature dropped dramatically to twenty below overnight, you’d better show the steaming breaths, the blue lips and fingers, the ice in the fountain…  Or, if a scene hinges on what a particular character is feeling, you should do everything you can to show us that feeling in all its power and glory.  What you don’t need to do is to take every single opportunity that arises to “show” rather than “tell.” It isn’t necessary or practical (or even desirable) to “show” every detail of your story.

In fact, “telling” has two advantages over “showing:” It’s efficient, and it’s clear.

It almost always takes more words to show than to tell. Consider whether it’s worth it. Sometimes it’s better to just get on with the story. And attempts to completely avoid “telling” can cause confusion. Trying to show what your character is feeling through facial expressions, gestures, and body language alone, can fail if your reader doesn’t interpret those clues as you intend. Interpretation can be cultural – or individual. One person may express extreme anger with nothing more than a clenched jaw, another by screaming and throwing things. A description of twitching facial muscles and vibrating limbs might suggest to some readers that the character is frightened rather than angry – or is having a seizure…  (It’s entirely possible to “show” things badly.) If you tell us the character is “furious,” your meaning won’t be misconstrued as long as the word is in the reader’s vocabulary. If it isn’t, the problem is solved by a dictionary.

Sometimes the best approach to the “show” versus “tell” dilemma is to do a little of both. Tell for clarity and show a bit for illustration. “He was plainly furious. His lips twitched. His fingers clenched on the handle of his cane.” Or, more simply: “He was shaking with rage.” That last one is a “show” and a “tell” all in one. It may not be literary, but if it serves the required purpose for the story you’re trying to tell, what’s wrong with it?

Opinions? Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your take on this burning issue.

Clarity and the ambiguous pronoun

Caterpillar using a hookah. An illustration fr...

Caterpillar using a hookah. An illustration from Alice in Wonderland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I read people’s fiction manuscripts I’m often surprised at how frequently I encounter things that just aren’t clear. (I probably shouldn’t be. As a writer you always know what you meant to say, and it can be hard to tell in the heat of the moment that you haven’t said it.) This is a much rarer flaw in published works of fiction – although I have had the same experience recently with published books or ebooks. It never used to happen, or almost never.  I suspect the proliferation of self-published books and books from small indy publishers is at least partly to blame. The author may or may not have hired an editor, or may have used an inexperienced one. A small publisher may run the ms past one editor, whereas I’m told the major houses used to run them past several. More eyes are better. It’s that simple.

When I say things aren’t clear, I’m not talking about places where the writer was obviously trying to imply things, rather than explicitly state them, or deliberately trying to be ambiguous. I’m talking about ambiguity that’s obviously not intended.

One of the most frequent causes of unintended lack of clarity comes from ambiguous pronoun reference, something like this:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. He smiled and waved.  “Where are you going?” he called.

Who smiled and waved? Was it Jim or Bob? Is Jim asking where Bob is going on the bus, or is Bob asking where Jim is going on his bicycle?

Other things being equal, pronouns tend to attach themselves to the nearest preceding noun. “His” therefore refers to Jim. There’s really no other possibility. Both instances of “he” are most likely to refer to Bob, making Bob the one smiling and waving and also the one calling. If you as the writer meant otherwise, you had better say so, like this:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. Jim smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now the remaining “he” feels like it refers to Jim because Jim is closer, so Jim is doing the calling as well as the smiling and waving. Again, if you didn’t mean that, you had better say so:

As Jim peddled down the street, his friend Bob was sitting at the bus stop. Jim smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” Bob called.

But remember, I said “other things being equal.” Consider this rewriting of the original sentence:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. He smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now Jim and Bob no longer have equal weight because “Jim” is being used grammatically as a subject whereas “Bob” is being used as an object. I’m not certain, but I feel as if all three instances of “he” more likely refer to Jim. Jim was the subject of the first sentence, so I tend to assume it’s Jim whose actions are being described as the narrative proceeds. If I intend otherwise, I must say so:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. Bob smiled and waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

And again, I’ve now got Bob doing the calling because his is the closest name and it was used as a subject.  If I meant to switch back to Jim, I should have written, “where are you going?” Jim called.

All right, now consider this variant:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. His face broke into a smile and he waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Now, I tend to feel as if the “his” in “his face” could quite possibly refer to Bob. I think this is because “Bob” was used as an object and “his” is an object pronoun. It could still be Jim, but the connection is weakened and the sentence has really become ambiguous. Also, the last “he” now feels like it ought to have the same referent as the one in “he waved.” So again, I have to check to be sure that’s what I intended.

What’s the upshot here?

When you are describing action involving multiple characters of the same gender, the pronoun is not your friend. This doesn’t mean you should avoid all pronouns. You obviously need them sometimes. Repeating names over and over can sound repetitious and clunky. It just means that you have to regard all pronouns as suspect, potentially ambiguous until their possible referents have been checked and cleared. And if there’s any chance of confusion, out they go.

It’s a good idea to have alternative identifiers for your characters to help you avoid repeating the same name over and over. Alternative identifiers are things like: “the boy,” “the old man,” “the dark-haired girl,” “the fat woman,” “the farmer,” “the merchant,” “the Italian” – or even things like “his friend,” “the other man,” or “the speaker.”

I know you’re thoroughly tired of this sentence by now, but just to illustrate:

As Jim peddled down the street, he saw his friend Bob sitting at the bus stop. His friend’s face broke into a smile, and he waved. “Where are you going?” he called.

Then, of course, there are the people who don’t like to use dialog tags, who want to just write, “where are you going?” Well, here’s one alternative fix for that approach:

              “Where are you going, Jim?”

It’s remarkable how easy it is to end up with ambiguous pronouns. I know I find them all the time when reviewing my own writing. How about you? Have you noticed this problem in your own writing or in other people’s? Do you have your own tricks for dealing with it?