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.
|Tear open packet and use.|
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.
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.