Friday, June 10, 2011

Huh? So what? and Oh yeah?

I previously mentioned the three things Orson Scott Card said are going through a reader’s mind. That is, Huh?, So what? and Oh yeah?. Here is a breakdown of what it means. (I copied the base idea of these three into a notepad a long time back from someone’s notes to an OSC bootcamp. Can’t remember who.)

What it means
The reader is lost. Something doesn’t make sense. The reader is confused as to what is happening. It might be something that wasn’t explained sufficiently. This can often happen if you assume a reader would know what something means when they do, in fact, not.

How to fix it
You need to give the story clarity. Make sure you’re not assuming prior knowledge from a reader that might not be there. A good way to test this is through beta readers who know nothing about what you wrote. If you find such a problem, you need to make things clear or fix any inconsistencies. Look out for parts where you imply to a high degree – it might be a place where you could lose a reader.

So what?”
What it means
The reader doesn’t care. A man is being chased by a rabid dog, but the reader doesn’t care whether the man gets bitten or not. It’s all the same to him/her. You need a reader to sit on the edge of their sitting surface and gnash their teeth, anxiously awaiting the result of the chase.

How to fix it
You need to let the reader care. Mostly, such a situation calls for character development. You need to show the reader that the person in a pickle (or anything else, really) is worth caring about. You need to tell them why they should care. The hero is a good guy. The woman is the key to saving the world. Whatever the case may be. This is the reason why people tell you not to start a story with danger. An unknown character in a dangerous situation will immediately put the reader on a So what course. You have some gap from the start of the story, but it’s still tricky. Give the readers some context so that they know why they should care.

Oh yeah?”
What it means
The reader doesn’t believe what you’re saying. Now while all fiction has a degree of that – it is fiction after all – the key is to, as they say, suspend disbelief. The more real everything sounds, the more they will believe what the author is saying.

How to fix it
The reader has to have faith in what you’re saying. Now there is a lot of advice out there on how to suspend disbelief, but I’ll touch the subject lightly. Using coincidences to resolve conflict is a bad idea. You can use them to initiate conflict, but never to resolve them. Having characters act out of character is another one. Stay true to the characters rather than the plot. If something seems hard to swallow, don’t leave it. Put something in earlier to make it more believable (e.g. putting a gun in the description of the mantelpiece in the first chapter so that you can use it to kill the villain in the final one) or change your plot to be more believable.

These three questions should be kept in mind especially when revising. Getting a beta reader to point them out would be useful. OSC himself said that any rule can be broken, so obviously, none of these are necessarily indicators of problems. It’s just useful if you wonder where the fault lies.


  1. Huh? The point you make here is absolutely true and makes sense, but the problem is being able to spot it in your own work. The problem is when you assume the reader understands something which they in fact don't, you do it subconsciously so it's very hard to be aware of it. This is one of the issues with all writing advice, knowing the fix is not as important as figuring out you actually need a fix. Betas certainly help, but learning to be aware of this problem, especially in early drafts, coems from experience. Cruel, cruel experience.

    So what? I would say the whole 'make th ereader care' angle is a oversold. if the man running from the dog scenario is presented in an interesting or unexpected way that makes me wonder what he'll do (he's running towards a cliff, he's trying to get to a butcher's, he's singing Danny Boy while he runs) that can generate enough curiosity to keep me reading. Interesting is more powerful than likeable.

    Oh yeah? A technique useful here is to establish authority. If say the MC is deep sea diving, and I use the terms and descrinbe the experience in a way that makes it seem like I know what I'm talking about,then that authority will cross over into other parts of the story where I'm making shit up.

    Very interesting post.

    Moody Writing

  2. Thanks for the comment. I can't say I agree with your so what? statement entirely. I understand what you're saying, but if the reader does not care what happens to the character, he will be more prone to be disinterested and there will be little to no tension.

  3. My point is there isn't just one approach. Interesting behaviour makes a character 'likeable' take Hannibal Lecter for example. The idea your hero has to save a cat from drowning in chapter one to make the reader sympathise with him (or the equivalent) tends to be taken almost literally and can become cheesy. It's just something to watch out for.