Don’t confuse your readers

Confusion is a writer’s enemy. When your reader gets confused by something in your manuscript,  she has to stop to figure things out. I’m a cranky reader–if I get repeatedly confused, I stop reading.

There are many ways to confuse readers–some are sins of omission, others of commission.
Here are some of the major manuscript issues that have confused me as a reader:

  • Switching a character’s name from his full name to a nickname without providing enough context for the switch. For example, a character might be introduced as Dr. Anthony Powell, but then is referred to as Tony in the next reference. 
  • Using character names that are too similar: Terry and Tara, Brandy and Sandy, Milton and Merle.
  • Introducing an unusual word, term, or concept without enough context for it to be understood.
  • Including two characters of the same gender in a paragraph, followed by dialogue or action that is attributed to “he” or “she,” without clarifying who is speaking or acting.
  • Switching POV without a format break.
  • Allowing a character to drop from a scene for three or four pages, then suddenly reappear without reintroduction.
  • Including too many characters in a single paragraph or scene.

What have I left out? What are some of the things that confuse you as a reader, or that you avoid as a writer?

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13 thoughts on “Don’t confuse your readers

  1. In a book I read the author began a chapter referring to a character that had been introduced a few chapters back, but he didn’t provide any information about where the scene was taking place. I had forgotten about the character and it took me several paragraphs to realize that the character was the lead’s psychiatrist and the scene was taking place in the psychiatrist’s office.

  2. Fantastic list. Three possible additions:

    1. Not making clear transitions for changes in time, location or chronology.

    2. Using dialogue without clearly showing who is speaking

    3. Inserting long strings of dialogue in empty-space and expecting the reader to fill in the blanks and picture where you are and who is doing what.

  3. Good checklist, Kathryn. Ironically, an “information dump” may cause confusion, too. When an author pours out too much exposition and explanation at one time, the reader may be overtaxed. Better to drop that information in gradually, organically, piece by piece.

  4. as a reader, i get confused with too many characters with too many scenarios…i’m reading a book by a well known author…her setting is an international military ops/security detail. there are about 8 guys and 8 gals…and they fall in love, marry, get widowed quite frequently…inadvertantly shot or blown up….the widower then drinks for 6 months and comes back to marry yet another character and live to spy again. in the same book…there are about 5 different little stories going on simultaneously…. so when i get a headache from sorting it all out…i just consider it an exercise for alzheimer’s prevention…like a crossword puzzle.

  5. Timothy, that author could have benefited from a critique group–someone would probably have pointed out that character location issue.
    Adventures, I’m with you on the long blocks of dialogue thing. I know it’s in vogue now among certain authors, but it’s yet another thing that makes me stop reading. kathy d., when we need a cast list to keep up with everyone, I think the author is trying to cram in too much.

  6. I agree with what has been offered up so far. One little thing that bothers me is that happens sometimes one character will be talking and is interrupted by the second character and that second character knew what the first was going to say – but I don’t. “You know I should…” he said. “Don’t say it.” she said. I don’t know what he should – not enough context.

  7. I too am a finicky reader, because time is limited and I seldom have time to wrap my head around the types of things you mentioned. If I get confused I just put the book down and reach for another. Another thing that gets me is when a novelist tries to get too slick with the twists and turns to the point that I forget where the whole plot was originally moving. That and random insertions of what looks like transliterated Slavo-Chinese but is really just silliness.

    Fhu Zhong mi kow nahwa mi ko vladebla hruskivowie librovnik zhee fong. Da. Spaseba.

    yeah…that’ll make me put a book down….or not

  8. One recent book I read spent the first chapter in a board meeting. It was literally a list of names: Bob, Jim, Janie, Samantha, etc etc etc. I struggled to tell them apart, and it turned out that only two of those characters were relevant to the story regardless, and the rest vanished into the ether. (On a related note: starting a thriller in a board meeting is generally a bad idea, unless something truly dramatic takes place during it. Not so in this case).

  9. Good list, Kathryn. I would add this one: Assigning a first and last name to a character who is only going to be mentioned once in the book and never actually appears. The presence of a first and last name creates an impression for the reader that the character is somehow important and will figure heavily into the story, or at least into that scene.

  10. Great list, and with the additional posts, a full list.

    I hate it when a character is mentioned in one chapter and then many chapters later they reappear, but not enough character description or personality has been given to that character to make him/her rememberable.

  11. I think the POV slip is a bigger problem. It seems that a lot of new writers don’t fully understand what it means to be attached to the main characters point of view. This is especially prevalent in third person. Yes, I know there is omniscient POV’s, but most third persons are third person limited, as they should be.

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