You know the old writers’ saying, right? Show, don’t tell. It’s probably from Chekhov, and it basically means that you should use description and sensory cues to explain things, as opposed to exposition. It’s really great 101 writing advice. Some of the best, if you’re so inclined as to make a listicle of great 101 writing advice.
However, I think there’s a great 200-level version of this advice, that sort of tips it on its head. (Aside: I should write a blog post about how writing advice is meant to be broken. Or at least bent. Or caressed in such a way that it behaves differently than you might expect. Someone, hold me to that.) I think sometimes, instead of showing, instead of telling, you should just infer, and it doesn’t have to be noticed up-front. If a character speaks with a specific dialect, or mentions something that—to the reader already in the know—the character was in a specific place at a specific time, or that events are somehow possibly related, you’ve given the reader something to mentally play with.
Now, inference alone is valuable. But I think it’s important to couple this with the fact that inference doesn’t necessarily have to be caught. In-jokes aren’t for everyone, and that’s okay. But, I think it’s important to make a number of decisions about your characters, about your stories, and about your world which don’t necessarily reflect on the plot as expressed in the greater work. “Claire prefers mustard and relish on her hot dogs” isn’t even remotely important—at least until you make it important. However, making that decision and making the inference gives you something you can choose to make important, that you can choose to make valuable later on. If Claire gets her hot dog, scoffs, and wipes off the ketchup and adds mustard, does that ultimately help your plot along? Probably not. However, if in your next book, Claire’s childhood trips to the baseball stadium with her mother become a plot point, then readers will be able to identify that you were seeding that earlier on.
Inferring Through Writers’ Block
And here’s the thing: It’s a trick. You don’t have to know what relevance these little inferences have in your story. You can (and should) pepper them throughout. Idiosyncracies help to make people feel more real, regardless of whether or not they mean something. But when you’re hurting for where to take your story, sometimes rereading past material and finding these inferences can be a godsend. Have you ever heard of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies card deck? The idea is, when you’re stumped and feeling creative block, they provide seemingly random constraints which—if overcome—can provide you with a creative surge. Seemingly random inferences in your draft quickly turn into your own personal Oblique Strategies deck.
If you fill your stories with little bits and elements like Claire’s proverbial mustard, you can ask yourself, “Okay. How do I make mustard matter?” You can extend that out to, “When does mustard matter? What does mustard mean to a person’s background?” Those sound like stupid questions in a vacuum, but when properly answered, you not only overcome that little bit of block, but you’ve turned your piece into a more cohesive whole, which will almost always look better to readers.
Or, shorthand: Make a seemingly inane thing matter.
So, we’re still talking about Claire, from my book Blood Flow. Right now, I’m writing the sequel. I don’t want to dig out the reference, but in Blood Flow, I gave a very, very vague inference to Claire briefly going to college but dropping out. It didn’t at all matter to the story in Blood Flow. However, I’ve decided to make it matter in the sequel (tentatively called Bloodletting.)
Here’s a scene where Claire and Dylan are talking about Claire’s education. It features a minor spoiler for Blood Flow, but I don’t think it’s a huge deal since it doesn’t give up what it actually means for the story. (Another aside: Let’s talk about spoilers in another blog post.)
“What are you writing?” Claire says as she walks into the room. I’m sitting at my desk. At my laptop.
“Just journal stuff. About the house.” I glance back to her. She walks up to me with a dark green button-down shirt in hand, dropping it in my lap. She wraps arms around my bare shoulders, and rests her chin on my still-wet, just-showered hair.
“Do you think that’s a good idea? What if someone finds it? Shouldn’t we try our best to keep the vampire thing a secret?” She says, and lowers her head to kiss my cheek. I put my hands on hers, and squeeze them to my chest.
“I dunno. I figure if someone’s breaking in here and reading my vampire diary, they probably already know what’s up. Besides, it’s a really great dramatic device. Perfect for vampire stories. They call it ‘epistolary’ writing. Dracula was epistolary. If it’s good enough for the first vampire novel, it’s good enough for me.” I tilt my head slightly to touch the side of my head to her collar.
“Okay. So, for one, Dracula wasn’t the first vampire novel. A lot of people say Polidori’s Vampyre was the first, but it’s just a short story. Then there’s Varney, which is kinda weird and garbage and way too big for anyone to seriously read. I say Le Fanu’s Carmilla’s really the first. Also it’s way better than Dracula. Dracula’s boring and overwrought.”
She kisses my cheek, and runs her fingernails up against my chest. “Second, I was an English major. I know what a fucking epistolary novel is. Don’t mansplain me.”
I open my mouth to protest. She reaches her right index finger up to tap my mouth. “Third, that’s fiction. This is real life. You’re not living for an audience.” She releases me and steps back, walking over to her vanity and grabbing a hairbrush.
I glance back. “I didn’t know you had a degree.”
“I don’t have a degree.” She says, running the brush through her hair. “I was an English major. I quit and started tending bars, because college is fucking expensive, and an English degree really only leaves you qualified for bartending anyway.”
“Sorry I haven’t gotten to know you better.” I say, standing and wandering over to her.
She shrugs. “It’s been three months. Most of that time’s been spent wondering if the sociopath megalomaniac warlord who is now inhabiting the body of your first vampire crush will march into our house and slaughter us while we sleep. I’m willing to give you a pass for not knowing what I did for three semesters. When Elisa marches in here with her soldiers, I don’t think reciting Shakespeare will save us.”
“You never know.” I shrug, and give her a weak smile.
So, not only am I building on an inference here, I’m also peppering some more material I can use the magic of Writer Retrocausality to make important later on.
Shortcuts to Inference Gold
At first, these sorts of inferences can be a challenge, because your writer instincts tell you that everything has to matter, that everything has to be relevant. That’s not true. But, if you’re struggling with adding inferences you can milk later, here are a few questions you can ask when polishing your draft:
What’s in their hand?
This one is probably my favorite. A lot of times the answer feels like, “Um, nothing?” But, if you decide there has to be an answer aside from “nothing,” the answer is almost always something you can use down the line.
Who else is influencing this scene?
This one’s a solid question because it makes you interlink your plot just a little bit more. Now remember, inferences don’t have to be obvious or opaque. Even if you’re the only one that notices it, it’s something you can connect back to down the line.
What were they expecting?
In a way, interesting writing is about managing character expectations. If everything goes according to one character’s expectations, that tends to be a boring story. But it’s worth considering what your characters were expecting which is contrary to what’s actually happening, and find a way to infer that initial, defied expectation.
Have you ever added random inferences to your text? More importantly, have you ever grabbed onto them later? Tell me about it below.