Bait and Switch

In real life if someone were to pull a bait and switch on you, it would be bad. They plan on presenting one thing to you, make you pay for it, and then deliver something different. It’s actually quite frustrating to be on the receiving end because it’s hard to explain on the spot. It kind of takes the words out of your mouth because it’s dishonest, but it’s not straight forward enough to call out.

It’s also pretty frustrating when writers do it. Not that they sell something and deliver something else. This is more about presenting information and then contradicting it soon after. It’s rarely intentional, but it’s very jarring for the reader.

It’s usually done in descriptions. The conventional wisdom on describing things in writing is “show don’t tell”. Which is good advice on it’s own but it gets mixed in with weird magical number rules. Like “only one adjective per sentence” and “always pick 2 senses and never sight.” There’s a lot of absolute advice out there that is catered to the individual giving the advice, not to the recipient. So it ends up creating bait and switch in writing.

Here’s an example:

The soldier walked into the room. His best friend Stephen gathered around him, weapons in hand. Their shimmering glow lit up the room, almost like magic. The table in front of them drew out the battle lines. One assault from the first set of riders, then an assault from another.

Riding wolves is hard. The men on the battle field knew that their steeds were not as well trained. And the sound from the plasma rifles easily startled these beasts. But their ferocity more than made up for their skittish nature.

So what happened in this scene? We were presented with an unknown setting, slowly fed details, and led onto what our imagination painted the setting to be. We get all the way into a fantasy world before the first detail completely erases the perception. Riding wolves? Plasma rifles? This is a really jarring reading experience.

Now the example above is really just made up on the spot, but many writers of varying sets of skill do this by accident. As a writer the world is clear in their head, but as a reader we are painting it, and trying as best we can to match what is in the story. The varying differences are what make written word so great, but losing the reader completely is bad.

The takeaway I’d like people to have from this is to suit your own skill, and not blindly take advice, especially with magic numbers assigned. Do what works for YOUR writing. Do what YOUR readers need. And please, bring consistency to your work so that people are not jarred away. It may not always make somebody put the book down, but it leaves a sense of unease through the rest of the page.




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