Giving your reader some space to interpret character intentions is a good thing but sometimes it can be overdone. Using inference or inferring through action or sarcasm the character’s intention(s) needs to be done in the right way.
Consider this opening scene:
Melinda saunters into the club and past a dozen lingering glances.
“Give me a double, Jimmy,” she says to the bartender and slides her compact gluts tightly wrapped in a red spandex mini onto the padded stool beside her.
Danny laughs then sips her tropical blend.
Melinda stares at her girl-hood friend and quirks an eyebrow.
Now, what do we actually know is going on in this scene? What direct information are we being given?
1) Melinda goes into a club with a bar.
2) People look at her when she comes in.
3) She knows the bartender’s name.
4) She orders a stiff drink.
5) She’s wearing a tight, short, red skirt.
6) She sits down beside her long-time friend Danny.
7) Danny is a girl.
8) Danny drinks fruity alcohol.
9) Danny laughs.
10) Melinda gives Danny “a look” (quirks an eyebrow).
What can we accurately infer from the direct info we’re given?
A) Melinda is shapely.
(We believe this due to the comment about her compact gluts and the lingering glances. The reader will bring their own interpretation to this but the stereotypical line of thought will be that she is a thinner, shapely woman. Why? The glances lingered without sneers or negative comments.)
B) Melinda frequents this bar.
(She knows the bartender’s name. Her long-time friend is sitting there already working on a drink of her own. She saunters in and walks straight to the bar without needing to look around.)
C) Melina is a confident woman.
(Again, she saunters in. She appears to ignore the lingering glances. She’s wearing a short, tight, red mini skirt which not a lot of women can pull off. She orders her drink without waiting to see if Jimmy is dealing with another customer giving us a sense of presence and ownership.)
D) Melinda has had a bad day.
(She orders a stiff, non-traditional drink for a woman. She doesn’t say hi to Danny. She’s unimpressed when Danny laughs at her as implied by the eyebrow quirk.)
E) Danny is less attractive and more boy-ish by nature than Melinda.
(She is referred to as Danny instead of Danielle or Daniella or even Ella. She is a girl-hood friend not a girlfriend. As children we often surround ourselves by people we want to emulate in some way; therefore, as a young girl if Danny was friends with Melinda-the-beautiful then likely she wasn’t as attractive as her friend.)
Let’s take another look at the scene above only provide more direct information for the reader and see what happens:
Melinda saunters into the club mentally gripping every shredded nerve ending. Of the eleven, no, twelve lingering glances only one doesn’t hide ridicule.
Her nerves won’t let her remember Danny’s instructions but she sees her at the bar. She catches sight of the bar tender’s name tag and forces out, “Give me a double, Jimmy,” before sliding her sizable, compact gluts wrapped in a red spandex mini onto the padded stool beside her. She pleads with God to have the bar hide her inner-leg fat.
Danny laughs at the look of terrified-calm plastered to Melinda’s face, then sips her tropical-blend beverage.
Melinda stares horrified at her girl-hood friend and quirks an eyebrow in shock.
In this version, the extra direct information we’re given completely reverses the role of these girls. Suddenly, Melinda is the less confident friend who is trying to be something she’s not, following Danny’s advice and direction. She’s a plus-sized girl uncomfortable showing so much skin in a skirt she’d never pick for herself, drawing stares of near disgust from the other patrons… of which she counts each one.
Here we’re given the impression that Danny’s near-cruel laughter and with her ease compared to that of Melinda’s we now see their names as a reflection of that comfort – Danny is cool (like her beverage) and relaxed; Melinda is stiff and unsure, clinging to every last syllable of her name. Suddenly the observation that she’s had a bad day should show just how bad it really is!
If the second Melinda is your true character, then the first scenario leaves far too much to reader interpretation – allowing them to infer based on stereotype… which we do as human beings naturally, for good or ill.
When it comes time to edited how much you are or aren’t saying… make sure the picture you’re painting is the right one 🙂
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