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Cole Parker

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I’d guess we all share some characteristics when it comes to writing, but I know we differ on some things, too. And I was wondering about ambiguity the other day. I’m in the finishing stages of a new short story. I’d written a line I was thinking about. It was this:

He reached out his hand to touch his arm, then withdrew it; there was no need, now.

I don’t much like ambiguity. I don’t like it when I encounter it in stories, and I don’t like to write it myself. I think it’s disrespectful of our readers. I think they want to know what we’re saying when we write, not to have to figure it out for themselves and perhaps miss the boat when doing so.

Take that sentence. To me, when I wrote it, it was very clear in my mind what it meant. But when I thought about it from a reader’s perspective, I saw it wasn’t. The problem was that appendant ‘now’.

What did it mean? As I say, to me it was clear. But then, I wrote it; it should have been clear. On consideration, though, it wasn’t.

It could have meant …there was no need, now; he could do so tomorrow. Or, …there was no need, now; other things were more urgent. Or, …there was no need, now that he felt differently about things. Or a number of other things.

What I thought it meant when I wrote it was, …he didn’t need to, now, because of what had just happened.

But thinking of the readers, I wasn’t sure how many of them would understand that. I don’t want readers not understanding what I write. But I don’t want to oversimplify, either. How was I to fix that? I could have added those extra words, but I like streamlined sentences where possible, and I don’t want to bore the readers who already have assumed that’s what I meant.

I figured out what to do, eventually. The first solution was a good one: just eliminate the ‘now’. Worked a charm. Then I went one step better and cut the entire sentence. No confusion at all that way.

What I was wondering, though, is if we all do this? Consider how the words will look to the audience? And then change them according to what we think they might see, if we see they might misunderstand? And wondering, too, about ambiguity. Do you guys care about that? Or do you write what you feel, and not worry about that, just let what words you like and want on the page do their job.

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You have me there, Cole. The lack of context is what leaves me wondering.

"He reached out his hand to touch his arm, then withdrew it..."

My immediate reaction was he reached out to touch whose arm? If it was his own then I would have been happier with: He reached out and touched his arm.

The word touch implies hand, although it could be a foot or a tongue or...any appendage.

But if it was the arm of another person then that's not clear. He(person 1) reached out his(person 1) hand to touch his(person 1 or possibly 2) arm.

From your one sentence example we don't know if there is another person involved.

The hardest thing we have to do is cut sentences and entire paragraphs in an edit. I keep an edit file with each story I write and toss the cuts in it. Sometimes the turn of a phrase just seems so cool, it just looks great on the page. But then reality strikes, and as you suggest, streamlining brings the reader closer to clarity.

Sometimes words and phrases can be judged as fluff, filling the page with no reason to exist. Anything that gets the reader closer to the action without wading through senseless words is a bonus. You do that well, Cole, don't change your ways now. (Now is such a frivolous word and I catch myself using it far too often)

We do write what we feel...and then common sense takes over. I think a good author worries over every detail, as we all should, as you do in each of your stories. :icon1:

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Guest Dabeagle

I think context plays a major part. If your reader is asleep and can't interpret that, well, there are other issues. But I think that the context makes it very clear and I would have left it.

I don't think there is anything wrong with keeping a readers mind working, whether it be because there is a mystery or that details make the story make more sense...There will always be readers who 'won't get something' and even though we'd like the largest audience we can reach there comes a point when your voice becomes bland and cookie cutter to reach some readers - and then it's not your voice anymore.

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You have me there, Cole. The lack of context is what leaves me wondering.

From your one sentence example we don't know if there is another person involved.

Yeah, I didn't make that clear enough(!) Well, the context the sentence was in did make that clear. No, it was only the 'now' that was the trouble. The rest of it was OK.

And you're right; 'now' does tend to be frivolous. Unnecessary, most of the time. I think we imbue it with more meaning and pith than it deserves.

C

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He reached out his hand to touch his arm, then withdrew it; there was no need, now.

The first thing I saw in that sentence, was the confusion caused by the pronouns. We needed to know who belongs to 'his arm' , and 'his hand'.

I think the sentence construction itself fails to deliver the appropriate sense of mystery which would justify the ambiguity. We needed more of the enigmatic, not less.

Consider this:

After all that had happened, Jeremy wanted nothing more than to offer a reassuring hand, but one look at the boy made it clear any touch was unwarranted, perhaps even an intrusion into their moment together.

Of course, I can't know from the example, exactly what Cole was wanting to achieve in the context of his story, but removing the sentence seems a shame to me when it might have been used to inspire a deeper description of the characters' relationship, or even expose a truth beyond either of them.

I do agree with the general regard that the word, 'now' can be very frivolous.

Strangely enough, the 'now' obviates the need for further explanation. The 'now' implies that something has occurred which, subsequently, justifies not touching, no longer needing to extend his hand, or touch his arm. What occurred is not known, and maybe it is an irony, or maybe the story itself leads to the ambiguity as something only the character knows and the reader must forever guess what that is.

I can't help but think of those moments in books and movies where the audience or reader is left wondering at the human condition never quite being fully explained. Yet, that lack of explanation, lack of knowledge, is a resolve in itself, more powerful than any attempt to fully comment on the outcome. Maybe that is what Cole achieves by removing the sentence altogether.

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You're more into what I was intending to show, Des. As I explained, there is no confusion in who is touching what in the context of the paragraph. The interesting part of it was what was conveyed you using the word now, and how removing it removed the ambiguity it caused. Yet, when writing it, I was even aware of the ambiguity. It was only on reviewing it that I saw it.

My main point was that I do try, when I write, to be aware there will be readers looking at the words, figuring out what they are intended to mean. I think it's our job to help them, without being trite or stale or over-explaining, as someone else mentioned.

I also thought it peculiar such ambiguity could be caused by such a simple word as 'now'.

C

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I don’t much like ambiguity. I don’t like it when I encounter it in stories, and I don’t like to write it myself. I think it’s disrespectful of our readers. I think they want to know what we’re saying when we write, not to have to figure it out for themselves and perhaps miss the boat when doing so.

I agree, but I'm concerned about whose arm is being touched. Why not say:

He reached out his hand to touch Joe's arm, then withdrew it; there was no need now.

I'd lose the comma. (And I know you threw that semicolon in just for spite!) Otherwise, I almost wonder if the guy is touching his own arm. The alternative would be to just say "touch him" and not specify the body part:

He reached out his hand to touch Joe, then withdrew it; there was no need now.

BTW, I just used a semicolon in my current story and thought, oh, Cole will make me rue the day...

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1. You don't "reach out" to touch your own arm. You would "reach across" if you were going to touch your own arm. So, in context, "reach out" makes it clear that #1 planned to touch #2 on #2's arm.

2. Cole, you said you deleted the entire sentence. Was #1 reaching out to touch #2's arm and holding back that immaterial? I find that hard to believe, unless there was something else in the context that would give the reader the same idea. Maybe your decision to drop the "now" was (without knowing the complete context) the better solution.

Colin :icon_geek:

I'm on my way to the airport where I have to sit and wait for a late-night flight home, with a six and a half hour layover in Hong Kong.

I leave at around 11:30 p.m. Thursday Perth time and arrive in San Francisco around 10:30 a.m. Friday. Piece of cake, right?

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1. You don't "reach out" to touch your own arm. You would "reach across" if you were going to touch your own arm. So, in context, "reach out" makes it clear that #1 planned to touch #2 on #2's arm.

You could reach out and touch... somebody's hand... make this world a better place... if you can.

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I am really looking forward to this story. If the deletion of one sentence can cause such a stir in this thread then I imagine the whole story must be a real zinger! The rule of unintended consequences applies, Cole. I don't imagine you were trying to publicize the story but you certainly have and we don't even know it's name. Well done.

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Well, Cole, you certainly caused a stir by asking your question the way you did, and now we are all struggling to create context and storyline and meaning out of the one sentence you have offered us. Poo on that. Of course the 'now' is crucial to the story at that point, because it emphasizes whatever it was that has happened and indicates that the situation has changed enough that the reassuring hand is no longer necessary. But your question is a different one. It is whether you can trust your reader to "get it" and I think you have to go with your first instinct that your reader is just as deeply embedded in the story as you are, and will appreciate the nuance that the 'now' offers.

But beyond that, your larger question is whether other writers, as well as yourself, are (or ought to be) sensitive to the abilities of your readers--surely a broad spectrum, indeed. I guess the quick answer is we cannot ever know what each reader brings to each page of our writing. I believe your primary obligation is to be true to yourself in telling the story in the best way you know how, using language you are both familiar and comfortable with. That language includes what you know of grammar and composition. It reflects the telling of the story to yourself, which is what you are doing in your head during the time that you are writing it. It does not mean, of course, that you should not go over what you have written, with the aid of your own sensibility and, if you are fortunate, the editorial eye of someone you trust who understands your work and your aims. That is the safety net that hopefully catches the potential for misunderstanding and ambiguity. I believe you cannot go beyond that in trying to second-guess the comfort levels of every reader.

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Thank you, James! Thank you! You're seeing and addressing what I was hoping would be addressed. How many times have I already said the touching wasn't the issue. It's like I wrote something wanting to know if it would be OK to include the Eiffel Tower in a sentence in a certain way, and I included in the test sentence something about a cabbage. It frustrating when then everyone focuses on what color or type of cabbage it was and pays scant attention to the tower question.

OK, it wasn’t that bad. The ‘now’ was addressed, and there was discussion of whether the rest of you try to look at what you write through readers’ eyes, and what part ambiguity plays in our writing. And it was probably my fault for not choosing a less evocative sentence as an example. But I thought I’d have no problem achieving focus on the important points. Nope. Didn’t happen.

I did take the sentence out. Yes, it presents wonderful sentiments, but everyone knows I write unnecessarily-sentimenal prose already; this one was probably overkill and not really necessary. As you’ll see when you read the story. It’ll probably be up next week some time. Still waiting for one final editor.

C

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Thank you, James! Thank you! You're seeing and addressing what I was hoping would be addressed. How many times have I already said the touching wasn't the issue. It's like I wrote something wanting to know if it would be OK to include the Eiffel Tower in a sentence in a certain way, and I included in the test sentence something about a cabbage. It frustrating when then everyone focuses on what color or type of cabbage it was and pays scant attention to the tower question.

OK, it wasn’t that bad. The ‘now’ was addressed, and there was discussion of whether the rest of you try to look at what you write through readers’ eyes, and what part ambiguity plays in our writing. And it was probably my fault for not choosing a less evocative sentence as an example. But I thought I’d have no problem achieving focus on the important points. Nope. Didn’t happen.

I did take the sentence out. Yes, it presents wonderful sentiments, but everyone knows I write unnecessarily-sentimenal prose already; this one was probably overkill and not really necessary. As you’ll see when you read the story. It’ll probably be up next week some time. Still waiting for one final editor.

C

And here I liked that part!

Excising whole sentences and paragraphs because you are second guessing yourself, or what you think your readers might not be able to comprehend... is that truly worth losing the flavor of a piece? I hear a lot of the authors saying if it is fluff and not really needed, leave it out. Sometimes you can over simplify a story and it no longer resembles your style any longer.

Just my two cents.

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I appreciate all the two cents I can get. And I didn't delete the sentence because I didn't like it. It fit very well in the paragraph and I did like it. But I changed the paragraph for other reasons and the sentence didn't work as well in that one, and believe me, it won't be missed. What the gesture in the sentence showed is still communicated. Just differently.

This was a first draft. Those always get kneaded and prodded and end up in a different shape than they started out in.

B

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Excising whole sentences and paragraphs because you are second guessing yourself, or what you think your readers might not be able to comprehend... is that truly worth losing the flavor of a piece? I hear a lot of the authors saying if it is fluff and not really needed, leave it out. Sometimes you can over simplify a story and it no longer resembles your style any longer.

I think descriptive and action words can be like spices in a meal: too little, and the food tastes bland. Too much, and it blows your head off because it's excessive. You need to be find a balance where it's just right, and that's a struggle that a lot of writers go through.

To me, I think it's always a good thing to err on the side of "less is more." It's far easier to get carried away and go overboard.

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