29 December 2015

You Should Never Assume ...

There's a famous episode in the original version of TV's The Odd Couple in which Felix Unger (the late, great Tony Randall) appears as his own attorney in court. Under Felix's questioning, a witness testifies that she assumed something, at which point Felix interrupts her, grabs a blackboard (conveniently sitting right there in the courtroom), and says, "You should never assume because when you ASSUME"--picture him writing the word in all caps on the blackboard--"you make an ass of you and me." Picture him now circling the ass, then the u, then the me. It's a wonderful scene (available on YouTube here) that makes a good point about assumptions. Problem is, people often don't realize when they're making assumptions.

Take the simple moist towelette. You know, the little damp napkin you get in rib joints and other messy places to help you clean up. The towelette comes in a little square paper wrapper. And on the back are instructions: Tear open and use.

How helpful.

Tear open packet and use.
Whoever wrote those instructions assumed you know what the towelette is for and how to use it. Why the writer then figured you needed to be told to actually use the darn thing is beyond me, but what's clear is that an assumption was made. At least this assumption is funny. But assumptions can also be dangerous.

I recall visiting family when my oldest niece (who shall remain nameless here so she doesn't hate me) was twelve. She was going to make her own lunch for the first time. Her mom was proud, said she knew the kid could handle it, and left the room. My niece picked up a can of something, placed it in a bowl, set that bowl in the microwave, closed the door, and was about to turn on the microwave when I screamed, "No! You'll burn the house down." She was quite surprised because the can's instructions had said to put the contents in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for a certain time period. The instruction-writer had assumed my niece would know to open the can and pour the contents into a bowl, not put the can itself inside the microwave. Ah, assumptions.

They also can be a bane of fiction writers. I once wrote a short story in which a character was given a pie and she remarked that she'd surely love it since she adored blueberry pie. A member of my critique group said, "She hasn't cut it open. How can she know it's blueberry?" I realized I had pictured the pie with a lattice crust so the character could see the inside, but that information hadn't made it onto the page. I just assumed the reader knew my intentions. Tsk tsk tsk.

I often see assumptions in the novels and stories I edit for other authors. They know their plots so well, they assume they've told or shown the reader everything necessary for their scenes to make sense. Alas, that's not always the case, which is why it's always good to have an editor or beta reader who can point out when assumptions have weaseled their way in.

But assumptions can also be helpful in stories. We know that people wrongly assume things all the time, so it's believable when characters assume things, too. For instance, in my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" from the January/February issue of this year's Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, three men are murdered in New Jersey, one dressed as Santa, one as Frosty the Snowman, and one as the Easter Bunny. Assuming the men's costumes were relevant to their deaths, Santa decides Jersey is too dangerous this year; he's not coming for Christmas. That assumption sets the stage for my sleuth (the head of everything magical that happens in NJ) to investigate the murders and try to save Christmas. (Want to read the story? It's on my website. Click here.) 

Assumptions can also be a bad guy's undoing. In a story in the anthology Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional (scheduled for publication in April 2016), an amateur sleuth is able to solve a mystery because the bad guy (or gal) assumes something that turns out not to be true. (I'm editing the anthology, and trust me, you'll want to read it. Great stories.)

Which brings us back to Felix Unger. He says "never assume." But I say assumptions can be helpful--as long as you make them purposely.

Have you read any mysteries with good, purposeful assumptions or bad, unintended ones? I'd love to hear about them below (but be nice!). And I hope you all have a wonderful 2016.


  1. Right now, I'm assuming my brain isn't working too well. It's only midnight here so maybe it's because I'm getting closer to Feb and another birthday and not because of the late hour. I'm a night owl so midnight isn't late for me. That said, my point was to say I can't think of any specifics, although I've written assumptions and like you I must have someone read for me and point out my error. I also can't think of any I have read but just know that I have. Good article.

  2. I think the key assumption of EVERY crime is that the perpetrator won't get caught! And we all have such fun when they do...

  3. A frequent underpinning of our work is that bad guys assume they are such good liars they will be believed.

    I love watching Walt Longmire work with these assumptions.

    Great blog post, Barb.

  4. Good post. It's a slippery slope when you're writing a series. How much did you tell in a previous book and what can you assume the reader already knows? Thanks for the discussion, Barb.

  5. I'm pretty good at assumptions, so much so that I have to enjoy YOUR and other GOOD mystery writers not to see what's coming.I am a bad person to watch a movie with, unless I remember to keep my mouth wired shut. (A daughter-in-law once handed me a movie and said, "Watch it, don't THINK; just WATCH it!")
    But this leads into a true story that you might just find amusing.
    My son had been Senior Patrol leader for his Scout troop and insisted on going to week-long camp with them up until the night before he was to head out on a plane to go out-of-state with his Scout Junior Leader Training crew. Both of us running on little sleep, (since we did laundry most of the night because all his Scout and camping equipment had been used all week and with him being a bit nervous.
    He was not feeling well and I took him to a cafeteria in the airport.He spotted a man that he thought looked like Tony Randall.The man was in the Denver Airport all alone, so, although I thought he looked like "Felix",(years after the show was over), I was worried about my son. But the more I looked, the more I wondered. Being pressed for time, I sent my son along and asked the man ,who was now reading a paper,"Have you ever been mistaken for Tony Randall?" He told me that he hadn't...but he WAS Tony Randall. I sputtered out that I enjoyed his movies, how my mother would laugh at "The Odd Couple" and call me "Felix" and my sister "Oscar", how I enjoyed the opera with him and I congratulated him on his family,(which came late in his life). I ran out on him quickly as the Scouts needed to board the plane, but he was a complete and total gentleman.
    I often wondered if he told people about the woman who asked if he'd been mistaken for himself! I am blushing again right now, after 22 years!

  6. No, I am mistaken...it happened 20 years ago at the Louisville airport.

  7. Great post, Barb. And a good reminder while I'm writing!

  8. Barb,
    Enjoyed this post. I'm learning not to assume as much as I used to.

  9. Thanks for stopping by, everyone. I'm glad you've enjoyed the blog post.

    Criminals do indeed think they'll get away with it and that their lies will be believed. But I think it's the little details that trip them up. The things they don't think about too carefully, that they just assume are true. When someone with actual knowledge comes along, suddenly those assumptions become glaring red flags.

    And how much to assume a reader knows when writing books two or more in a series? Good question, Michele. I think every book needs to stand on its own in this matter, but that doesn't mean you have to give the main character's life story on page one. A few sentences of background should be sufficient, and they should come up when necessary to the plot, not before (just like in book one).

    Finally, Tonette, I love your story with Tony Randall. Was he as charming in real life as he was on TV?

  10. I used to do the ass/u/me shocker with my students, but yes, some assumptions are necessary to get through life and to produce surprises in literature. Loved the surprises in your story! ;-) As a reader, I make some assumptions, or have some expectations, that the bad guy will get caught, the the main characters will survive, that the writing and editing will be well done. Thanks for all those. <3

  11. Barb, Tony Randall was even more of a gentleman and charming than he was on TV.I saw no posturing, no ego. I only wish I had had more time with him, which he was open to.As it was, I put my son on the plane and I had to go to work myself.When I came home, my husband handed me a phone # and the phone and told me to call the son, who was in the Scout reservation's infirmary with scarlet fever!(No wonder he felt bad!) It was a very trying time.

  12. Stories involving cons often rely upon assumptions, either on the part of the victim or the perpetrator.

  13. Software relies on 'algorithms', step-by-step instructions how something is handled. An example of a poor algorithm is on the back of shampoo bottles that read:
    1. Shampoo
    2. Rinse
    3. Repeat

    Repeat what? Step 2? Step 1 and 2? How many times? Because the way it's written is forever, what software people call an endless loop. It's all assumptions.

    Whoops, my sink is overflowing…


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