by Gayle Towell
All Barry knew was that he wanted his ex-wife to regret what she did—to regret cheating on him. He wanted to see her wide-eyed and scared. To say she was sorry.
He knew her schedule. He knew when she was alone and when she wasn’t.
Barry was alone all the time.
He knew what he had to do. He’d been planning it all week.
Pistol hidden in his pocket, he knocked on her door in the morning after her new fiancé had left. She let him in when he said he just wanted to talk.
The gun in his hand, his aim was true. She begged him not to do it. She finally apologized, but it wasn’t enough. There was only one way to make the pain go away. His finger pulled the trigger and the whole world became nothing but the loud sound of the firing bullet.
So, who’s dead? Barry or his ex-wife?
A complaint an editor will hear sometimes when pointing out something that is potentially confusing is that “No one else had a problem with it.” But editors have to nit-pick the details, so if there is a gap in the writing that leaves something open to divergent interpretations—even if one of those interpretations is more likely than the other—all logically valid interpretations must be considered and systematically crushed until only the intended interpretation remains.
Your average reader doesn’t read that way. I mean, why would they unless they’re an anal retentive beast? It’s a waste of brain power and effort. And when a person is reading for enjoyment, they pass over things more easily. Maybe they’re confused by something, but their brain quickly decides it isn’t worth dwelling on, or they go with an assumption and continue from there, possibly without even realizing it. In the end, they’re happy with the story and will tell you so. Only if you prod them will you discover that the whole time they thought your suicidal protagonist was actually out to commit murder, and they experienced an entirely different story than the one you intended.
Language is a funny thing. It is by its nature imprecise. You say table. I say table. But yours is wooden, round, and seats four people while mine is a 12-footer made of solid steel because that’s how I like my tables. So if you’re putting a table in your story and you want it to be a wimpy little dinette sort of thing, then you’ve got to drop a few more hints in to make this clear. If the table sits in an apartment, then that’s likely sufficient, but if it is a table sitting in the middle of a warehouse, then some additional descriptors need to be thrown in. Are people going to eat lunch on this table? Or stack a bunch of lead bricks on it because it’s all robust like that? (Maybe they’re going to do both and they’re all going to get lead poisoning. Plot twist! Then it becomes a surgical table where the surgeons remove all of the lead from their blood using their new-fangled laser-magic.)
Your reader may or may not be aware of ambiguities, but they form an assumption just the same, and they interpret the remainder of the story through this lens. Your job is to make it the right lens. The good news is, fixing an issue like this is almost always simple. In the example with Barry and the gun, just a simple “Barry put the barrel of the gun in his mouth” does the trick.