Assumptions sometimes get a bad rap. A lot of times they make an ass out of you and me, but that’s often only in hindsight. In fact, I’d posit assumptions are essential to living, and, along with that, writing.
After all, an assumption is made based on the information you have on hand or experiences you’ve acquired and can extrapolate from. For example, deciding what to wear based on a glance out the window—I assume I won’t need a rain jacket because the sun is out. Or I assume I can make cream of cauliflower soup because I’ve made cream of broccoli soup in the past.
The assumptions we make are based on our accrued knowledge. So we accrue knowledge to survive, but that doesn’t mean that knowledge is always enough to navigate our world. Mistakes do happen, and that’s actually a good thing for writers.
As people read our stories and novels, they are interpreting our words and trying to make sense of the world we’ve presented them with. To do this, they must make assumptions. For example, if I don’t point out that the sky is green in my story and people get around by walking on their hands, my readers will assume the sky is blue and people walk like normal.
So if on page 30 I suddenly point out that the sky in my world is actually green, that forces the reader to stop and reevaluate what I’ve told them. This can be a bad thing when it throws the reader out of the story. But for some story elements, particularly reveals, this can be a neat trick and make your reader even more invested in figuring out your story as they try to fit the pieces together into a cohesive whole.
|"But what does it all mean?"|
I like to do this particularly at the opening of a story, where I’m trying to hook a reader’s interest by slowly dealing out world details. Readers will make assumptions based on what is mentioned and/or described, along with what isn’t. And depending on how those details complement one another or how they disrupt one another, my reader will make assumptions about the larger story world that can potentially make the worldbuilding easier on me.
As writers, we should all be relying on a reader’s assumption about genre conventions when crafting our stories except when those conventions interfere with the story we’re writing. In other words, we should be using these assumptions as world building shorthand except when they get in the way. Big deviations, ones that will just cause more confusion than not, however, should probably be addressed as soon as possible so you don’t disorient the reader.
But for me, I like to use reader assumptions and turn them on their head sometimes. As James Killick discusses in Reveals and Revelations,
If you break it down, there are only really two types of revelation that can be made within a story – revelations about the story and revelations about character. The differences should be fairly self-explanatory – a revelation about the story is when something is revealed outside of character – who the murderer is, who is sleeping with the heroine's husband. Character revelation is when something is revealed about character – a hidden trait, an unrealised dream, a hitherto misinterpreted desire.
And both of these (when successful) work because the author has leveraged the reader’s assumptions about the story. The trick is setting them up (which is another post entirely :P).
As readers, we make all kinds of assumptions based on what’s presented to us by the author, as well as unconsciously, based on our own personal and cultural biases. Remember the social media explosion when peoplewere surprised that Rue was black in the movie version of The Hunger Games? That was attributed to a tendency of assumed whiteness where readers assume literary characters are white unless told otherwise. In fact, as The Hunger Games demonstrated, those details stating otherwise can be easily overlooked in a culture of assumed whiteness (and it must be said, poor literacy skills).
So what does that mean for the writer? Well, I think in some ways it’s our duty to engage with these assumptions and draw attention to them by disrupting them in unique ways without sacrificing story. Particularly the more insidious ones related to gender and race and power (and Juliette Wade has a great post on this subject).
But ultimately playing with readers’ assumptions is just another tool in your toolbox. So use it wisely.