Confusion is the enemy

I have finished a second book – it’s out to beta readers as I type, and waiting on the cover artist. Hopefully, by the time you read this, I’ll be getting ready to publish it!

In the interest of learning from my mistakes, I sent this one out to more beta readers, and asked most of them the same few questions – “Where did you get bored or confused? Where did you really enjoy it? Where did you skim or skip? What did I get wrong?”

In the last thing I published, I had several reviewers who noted that they were confused at the beginning, but if you stick with the story, it’s worth it. One, Pat Patterson (great guy), noted that he was confused, he’s still confused, and he really liked the story anyway! (Glad you liked it, Pat!)

…Okay, so clearly I need to NOT confuse people. Unless I intend to. In the course of a couple rounds of revision with patient beta readers (Thank you, beta readers!), I found a few things to watch out for.

1. Never time-skip in an action scene. If a Molotov cocktail goes off and the minibus that’s now on fire skids over the edge of the mountain, don’t mention next that one guy is shooting everyone until they’re over the edge, rolling and on fire.

Instead, it’s the Molotov cocktail hit the oil slick in front of the minibus, and the one guy started shooting everyone inside even as it slid backward. He kept calmly picking off every head he could see until one tire caught the edge of the road, and then the minibus rolled down the mountain, shedding fire and shattered glass and bodies all the way.

Otherwise, at least one reader is going to think “Okay, the first minibus rolled down the mountain, so she must mean that one guy is shooting at a second minibus until it follows the first?”

2. If the information is important to understand what’s going on, like foreshadowing, you need to repeat it roughly three times.

Because sometimes I put the information there. Sometimes I even took a deep breath and put in a major infodump (For me, that’s about two sentences.) But different alpha readers didn’t catch different bits in there. Maybe they weren’t paying attention at that point. Maybe they just didn’t connect the dots. Doesn’t matter – if you end up with confused readers, you as the author needed to be clearer.  Sometimes, clearer isn’t longer, it’s more often.

So I went back and mentioned the same information a couple more times in a few other places, and the next wave of beta readers weren’t confused about any of those things.

3. If you are using something that’s similar to but different from what readers expect, hang a lantern on it.

I’m used to scientists using Greek – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta – for a naming system, while pilots and military use the international English phonetic of Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta. But not everybody is used to the system variants. So if you’re writing something that has scientists naming stuff but is going to be read by soldiers – make sure you note multiple times that it’s the Greek system, and Gamma really does come before Delta.

My husband gets this one, too, every time he writes a space navy thingie that’s based on the British navy, instead of the American.

…So, that’s where I’ve confused my readers.

Where have you confused yours, and what did you do to fix it?

edited to add: Oh, yes, sorry, I did fail to point out this was the first book in question. Oops! The second, Shattered Under Midnight, will be along soon.

Or, for those with adblock on, Scaling the Rim. A whole lot  of determination, a little luck, and sneaky amounts of competence can change the world…


  1. “Otherwise, at least one reader is going to think “Okay, the first minibus rolled down the mountain, so she must mean that one guy is shooting at a second minibus until it follows the first?”

    No, I thought…. “Where the heck is the guy with the gun??” cuz at first I had him _inside_ the minibus, which made for awkward sharpshooting as the flaming assemblage bounced downhill. 😛


    Where I get confustulated readers is around those points where my nonhumans *seriously* do not think like humans, despite being reasonably contiguous elsewhere. Needs More Examples. *sigh*

    1. Same here. My first reaction (to the desctiption here) was “There’s a guy sitting in the falling, tumbling, burning minibus–and he’s calmly shooting his fellow passengers in the head as they fall and tumble and burn around him?”

      Of course, my *actual* first reaction was of ridiculous overkill, wherever the heck the shooter was.

      1. Yeah, my excerpt of initial draft is even more confusing when you don’t read the preceding setup of the ambush being laid, and said shooter picking his position. *facepalm*

        Well, at least it illustrates my point!

    1. Hopefully this makes you laugh: When I asked my darling husband why he hadn’t noted confusion on the ambush, his response was “But all ambushes are confusing! You’re walking along, then something’s wrong, bang, bang, bang, I’m still alive, okay, got three dead, now what the (expletive) happened?”

      …the luxury of writing is, apparently, that it’s supposed to be less confusing than real life!

      1. Funnily enough, on a similar note, my Beta reader told me that my battle scene left him confused, and that in his experience writing a scene that’s confusing should not mean you confuse the reader.

        Needless to say, this meant me going back and expanding a couple of scenes to clear up the confusion.

      2. *laughing* that sounds about right. For some reason what came to mind is that guy from District 9. He spent a good chunk of the movie screaming “Fuuuuuu-” and it felt like a completely appropriate thing for the poor sod to do.

      3. That’s encouraging, because my key fight scene is just such an ambush. What? The whole thing’s over and done in a page and a half? Yes, but it’s an intense page and a half. Hero doesn’t have time to think about it…the thinking’s already been done.

  2. uh, some rules stuff i wrote for gaming ages ago, i playtested it and found out that it was a little confusing to people that weren’t me and my co-writer?

  3. I’m used to ITU (International Telecommunications Union) phonetics (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta…) so it weirds me out to hear a police scanner (Alfred, Brian, Charlie, Dennis.. or such) ALL names… used to spell out a name.. hello confusion!

    I did once resort to phonetic spelling out some stuff on a phone call and got asked if I was (ex-)military. Nope – not even M.A.R.S.

    1. Just to make things more confusing, I learned “Able, Baker, Charlie…” Not only are there multiple competing standards, some of them have changed over time…

      “Standards are wonderful – that’s why we need so many of them!”

    2. The phonetic alphabet I learned (and yes there is more than one) is specifically designed so that all the *words* sound different. S is not Sally, and then P end up being Pauly. P is Papa… there is no other -apa sound. Etc. N is November… there is no other -ember.

      It makes me absolutely nuts when people use names… sure, P as in Paul is okay but if your connection is making S’s hard to hear, some random lists of S-words isn’t helpful. Sierra. There is no other -erra.

      I could spell my name like this… -ierra, -ankee, -ember, -scar, -ictor, -pha… And it would still work.

  4. Well I was a little confused the first time reading your book (thing? What is you sayin’!) but got everything straight the second time through and assumed that’s what you wanted…

    I love your set of questions. I didn’t have beta readers for my first book but I’m going to try hard this time to find some. ( that’s to say I asked some of my family for feedback and they all said sure but didn’t actually read the book until I put it up on Amazon..)

      1. Yes, me too. 😦 Except for Robin, yay! ~:D

        However I did have one reader, once upon a time, who told me something I took to heart. If a character knows something, you have to say how they know it.

        The example was a fight scene where the zombie is trying to kill the main character early in the book. The zombie is seen by the reader to stick a big hunting knife into the tailgate of the MC’s truck as he tries to escape. Reader said that having a camera outside the action is confusing. If the zombie is doing something, MC only knows if -he- see it. So shift perspective to the MC and have him see the zombie in the rear-view mirror.

        This is a lesson I have tried to apply to everything since. There is no magic knowledge where people just know stuff. They know it because they saw, or got a message, it is in their HUD, etc.

        1. > There is no magic knowledge where people just know stuff.

          Alas, if only someone had told the showrunners of “Stargate: Universe” that…

        2. Although Orson Scott Card had a nice chapter on POV in his book about how to write SF where he mentioned the “cinematic” POV, in which the writing shows you what you’d see in a movie with a roving camera and zero thoughts or feelings of the characters. Many, many stories have an initial paragraph or two with a cinematic POV before finally focusing on the protagonist.

          But switching POV in the middle of a scene is definitely a mistake. Maybe one of these articles should focus on POV, if it hasn’t been done already.

          1. The problem I had was the character sharing that external camera view with the reader. If guy inside the truck reacts to the zombie, it can’t be because he’s using the external camera. He has to -see- it himself, or hear it, or use his superhuman smell powers, Bat Radar etc.

            Its fine for the reader to have special knowledge. In the movies they have sneaking-up music, we all know what’s going to happen. But the characters aren’t supposed to hear the music.

            So, my guy looked in the rear view. Then he said “No way!” and hit the hump at the railroad tracks at 50mph. Got some air. Not a good day to be a zombie.

        3. Speaking of which, is there another book I should alpha-read for you? Or do I still owe you a review from the last one you sent me? What with the new baby AND moving house (within the same neighborhood, but the new house has one more bedroom), I’ve lost track of whether I’m waiting for you to send me another book to review (in which case you can send it whenever you want, there’s no rush) or whether you’re waiting for me to send you a review (in which case you should probably poke me so I’ll get back on it, because if that’s the case then I’ve completely forgotten).

  5. I’m really looking forward to your next book as I enjoyed the last one so much. While my input is a day late and a dollar short, I wasn’t confused at all by the story. I do wonder why the planet settlers would be genetically engineered to have wolf like characteristics where there was no obvious advantage to it. Doesn’t hurt the story at all for me, just curious.

    1. Aw, thank you!

      As for the reason, it’s kinda long. In story, I’m building a world where people have been very bored on the ship for a long while (this planet is not near anything – part of why they never even think about getting outside help), and were really good with genetic manipulation. So not only would you get the security personnel and any advance on-surface scientists modified for easier adaptation to the pre-terraformed climate, but you’d end up with people modding themselves cosmetically because they could. And having had plenty of friends who were (and still are) fond of body modification, I considered it entirely natural that they’d do that genetically, too, just because they can.

      Given the number of folks I know up in Alaska who are fond of wolf and bear motifs in personal decoration, or general joking references to themselves as beasts, when there’s no societal cost to giving yourself fangs and claws, why not? (And, having tried to punch a keypad and handle tools in weather colder than my glove liner’s rating, I have certainly wished I had a nice long fingernails for not pressing frostnipped fingertips to Very Cold surfaces.)

      However, humans being human, and obsessing over the smallest differences (Have you seen the historical signs “No Blacks or Irish allowed”? Or the way hipsters unconciously freeze, sneer, and draw away like you’re contagious if you let an Appalachian accent slip out, when you look just as white and fashionable and educated as them?), once you lose the ability to manipulate genes, there’s going to be all new forms of racism cropping up to distinguish those in power from those without. Given the shipboard-adapted refugees who came down to the surface years ahead of plan, all in a rush and grabbing what they could evac with as the ship failed around them – the founders of Central – would not be gene-modded for the surface, and the scouts who liked their freedom and could stand the cold away from centralized control would be… well, right now humans don’t categorize by “doesn’t sunburn until extreme exposure” vs “can produce Vitamin D in perpetual overcast” – nope, it’s black vs. white. So I figure no matter what colour of skin or shade, the colonists would seize on the fang & claw mods that turned out to be hereditary, come up with the most derogatory name possible, and slap it on everyone on the outskirts, modded or not. Thus, the Central epithet of “Dogs.” … and for those outside of central, it’s just “pack”, no more remarkable than red hair or pale skin.

      Although, I have to admit, I never did find a good place to put in the worldbuilding that “Rus” came from “Rustic”… really, I’d probably have to introduce someone completely foreign to the world for them not to already know that and make it have an “as you know, Bob, we’re called Rus because Centralia used to deride us as the Rustics, and we embraced the term, but humans tend to drop syllables on things in everyday use, so now we’re the Rus…”

      Several readers thought I must mean, given arctic, that they were Russian. I admit, I didn’t really see that one coming, but I should have, given some of the grab-bag of assorted names you’d get in an arctic colony were intentionally heavy on the northern band of Europe. (Because, in real life, you get a lot more folks who are comfortable with Alaska’s climate who have names ending in “..son”, “..sen,” “”, “,” and “..vich” than something equitorial.)

      1. Wow, thanks for the back story. I didn’t make the cosmetic gene mod connection, but that makes good sense. I confess I also assumed Rus = Russian descent. I thought your world building worked very well without obvious data dumps. I’m not sure there would have been any way to include all this (short of an appendix) without being “we interrupt this plot…” Gee, it’s so nice to be able to ask the author a question! 🙂

  6. My worst case of confusing my readers was one of my earlier writing efforts when I tried my hand at writing sci-fi murder mysteries. My (admittedly small) pool of readers were all convinced the detective’s wife was the murderer, or at least the one orchestrating the murders. No of them could say why they thought that, but all of them did. My goal was write a Thin Man-esque mystery solving couple so I tried developing the character a bit more but the best I was able to manage at the time was “nice enough, but clearly destined to die.”

  7. This was a good response, that helps me in clarifying my own stories – like that part about more often, not longer.

  8. I did have to make a small change to one of my recently-sold stories when it was pointed out that my POV character somehow manages to see what’s going on around him in great detail while also rolling on the ground. Oops.

    1. That’s the external camera thing I was talking about. Very insidious.

  9. I attended a writing workshop on “Tension” once, and the biggest thing that stuck with me was that tension is when the readers are wondering what’s going to happen next, but confusion is when the readers are wondering what’s happening right now. Tension is good; confusion is usually bad, if not fatal.

    He did add, though that SFF readers have a very high tolerance for confusion at the start of a story, since part of the fun is figuring out what’s happening.

    1. I don’t mind waiting for a situation to reveal itself but I really really hate the feeling that the author is “trying to be mysterious”. Stop it! Your job is to communicate, not to obfuscate.

      1. Yes, you can have the reader wondering what’s going on, but you can still be clear about it. As in, the reader isn’t sure what all the clues add up to, but they should understand what the clues you’ve give are.

  10. Knowing that the next chapter would be a continuation of what is currently going on was my favorite part of Merchant and Magic. It was so nice not to be switching people, times, and places when the page turned; almost unheard of in fantasy. Definitely lowered the possibility of confusion.

  11. Having had a beta reader once who didn’t seem to get anything I’m afraid I developed a tendency to explain everything way too thoroughly. 😀

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