The Indelicate Editor – Vagueity-vagueing

by Gayle Towell

AMMIThere’s a great Neil Gaiman quote I like to tell people about when it comes to receiving critiques from readers:

 Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

Today I’d like to talk about how this applies to the following scenario:

Someone reads your writing and they come back at you saying, “There’s all this talk of a mysterious force for the first half of the story and it’s really bugging me that we don’t find out what it is sooner. You need to tell us what it is on page one and stop beating around the bush.”

After snorting in disgust, you say, “Um, that’s how a mystery works? I mean, if I gave it away on page one then there’s no point to the story. The whole thing gets explained at the end if you’re patient. Geez. Some people.”

You’re probably correct that their suggestion of giving up the ghost on page one would ruin the mystery, but don’t dismiss their confusion completely. Often the real problem here is something I like to call “vagueity-vagueing.” (I make up my own words because I’m cool like that.) A little mystery can be an excellent plot device, and maybe everything that is confusing now does indeed get sorted out later. But sometimes a little mystery feels like someone stuck you in a room, turned off all the lights, and then asked you to guess how many fingers they’re holding up.

One eyebrow raised in confusion in that dark, dark room, you say, “Can’t we just turn on the light?”

And they’re all, “No.”

And you scoff or choke or make some single-syllable indication of their absurdity and say, “But it’s right there. Why are you doing this?”

The solution to “vagueity-vagueing” is usually one of the following:

Solution 1
Tell the reader LESS. This seems counterintuitive, but the idea is, if you’re showing the reader something and you don’t want to give away what it is just yet, then this is going to bug the reader unless you can demonstrate that having the hint now is actually important now. For example, if the “mysterious force” causes a pile of books to fall off a table, then this is relevant now. But if your protagonist is wandering around saying,


“There’s a mysterious force in this house, just so you know. And it’s really mysterious, but that’s all I’m going to say right now is that it’s mysterious. And a force. And you should beware because sometimes it makes strange things happen.”


“What kind of things?”


“Stranger than you could imagine. And this mysterious force is super important because it has caused problems in the past. But I’m not going to tell you what those problems are yet because it’s time for dinner. Shall we?”


So ask yourself if the mystery needs to be shown now, or if it can be shown later when it’s either causing things to happen in the present or when you’re ready for the full reveal.

Solution 2
Don’t give away the secret, but go into detail about everything that is presently known. Suppose there’s a scene where you’re told something like this:

“Out of the corner of his eye, Alec saw something move, but when he turned his head it was gone.”

Now obviously we don’t want to reveal what that something is, and obviously the mystery is relevant to the present scene, but there’s more that can be done to ground this for a reader. Imagine this was a scene in a movie. How would you show “saw something move”? You’d have to know what exactly it looked like to Alec. Perhaps something like this:

“Out of the corner of his eye Alec saw movement low to the ground, perhaps an animal running across the room, but when he turned his head, there was nothing there.”

It isn’t about revealing what something is if the reveal comes later, but about clueing the reader into everything that is presently known. We should know as much as the protagonist. We shouldn’t be in the room with them, looking through fuzzy goggles while they panic at the “strange sight” they saw. It’s like going to the movies with headphones on or with the screen out of focus. Sure, some mystery is a fine plot device but it’s nice to actually see the show.


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