22 June 2021

How Assumptions Can Affect Your Writing

I'm under a time crunch, so I'm recycling a column I wrote in 2015, with a few changes, including some new examples. It's about how assumptions can impact your writing and be used in it. I hope you find it helpful. 

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 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 knew she'd 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 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 2016 issue of 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. 

Assumptions can also be a bad guy's undoing. In my story "Bug App├ętit" from the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, a con man tries to finagle an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. When his mark starts talking about the meal, he doesn't pay attention. He assumes it doesn't matter what she is going to say about the food, and that assumption comes back to bite him in the butt. 

Another example about how assumptions can play out comes from my story "James," published earlier this year in the anthology Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. A rock star returns home for a family funeral and stops by his old best friend's home. The old friend is now married to the rock star's ex-girlfriend. After some conversation, the rock star thinks his old friends, who he hasn't seen in decades, need some help, and he can be the one to help them. He invites them to dinner the next day but asks his ex to come a little early so they can talk privately. She assumes he wants to get back together. That assumption kicks off the rest of the plot.

So, does that mean assumptions are a good thing or a bad thing? Felix Unger cautions us to "never assume." I think that's good writing advice. Keep an eye out for assumptions worming their way unintentionally into your stories and novels. But as for plotting, let your characters assume away. And then let them face the consequences.


  1. Interesting stuff. Of course, another category is the reader making assumptions. In my story "The Hard Case" a character tells someone on the phone that he just finished 25 years in prison. Hopefully the reader assumes he was a prisoner, but it turns out he was a guard...

  2. Good reminder, Barb. I too fall into the trap of thinking I've told the reader everything she/he needs to know only to reread the story a few weeks later to discover I haven't.

  3. Oh, yes, by all means, make your readers ASSUME. I will once again pay to you the highest compliment that I can give to a mystery writer: You GOT me! You got me in "Bug Appetit" and others. I usually see twists coming but if I don't see the end coming, I love it.
    As for the pie, that's where beta readers come in.I worked on one for a friend and I asked which of the two characters was speaking at one point that she had not clarified. It was, in fact, a third character.
    Keep me making wrong assumptions. It's the only time that I ever enjoy being wrong!

  4. Your microwave story reminds me of Wolf brand chili which had the slogan, Just heat and serve So one woman did--she put the unopened can on the burner and heated. Of course, it exploded all over the kitchen. The Wolf people paid to redo the kitchen.

  5. Rob, I remember that story - I loved it.
    Barb, the trouble with products is that whoever writes the instructions makes a lot of assumptions. Consider the tale of the man who purchased a lawnmower, and he and his brother decided that it worked so well, it was bound to do a good job on the hedge. Right? Later they sued the manufacturer for their medical bills.

  6. Yup. In my WIP, the sleuths are making some very wrong assumptions. It's fun playing God! ;)

  7. Good column, Barb (and I remember that episode of the Odd Couple!) ... I liked the way you used that assumption to propel the story in "James." And I love using assumptions to help deliver a twist, when the reader believes something is one way and then realizes it's another

  8. Thanks, everyone, for commenting.

    Rob, yes, reader assumptions are worth consideration. All kinds of tricks for burying clues works off of assumptions about what will be noticed and under what circumstances.

    Susan, you're welcome. Your example is a perfect reason why it's a good idea to let a story sit a while before you edit it and send it out, if you can.

    Tonette, thank you! I'm always delighted to fool readers.

    Judy, I never heard that story. It's good they stepped up. (Or were they forced to?)

    Eve, it amazes me how dumb people can be sometimes. If you tried that lawnmower bit in a story, readers would tell you it wasn't believable.

    Barbara, it is fun playing God! Thanks for stopping by.

    Adam, yep, it's fun tricking people, and it's great when it's readers because they appreciate it! Unlike tricking people in real life. Then they tend to get testy!

  9. I've worked with a couple of critique groups, and the most common problem for all of us has been assuming the reader understands something that hasn't been stated anywhere in the book! It's true that when something's in our head, we don't always remember to actually put it (or at least hint at it) on the page.


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