This past week I had a fantastic time doing a week-long school visit at an elementary school in Ham Lake, Minnesota. I hadn’t done a school visit for a while, and I’d forgotten about the questions. Not the “how long have you been a writer” or “what is your favorite book” questions—but the “no adult filter yet in place” questions that students so casually ask me on first meeting:
- How much money do you make?
- Are you married?
- How old are you? (Now that I think about it, I got this question a lot more than usual this week. Note to self: get some rest!)
And then came one that was new to me: How much do you weigh? I admit, I was taken aback. I’m what you might tactfully call a “substantial” person, so I can understand this boy’s curiosity. But I’d never had a student ask me that before. I explained that I was going to decline to answer because it was something I’d rather keep private.
He nodded and grinned, unfazed by my refusal. “I weigh fifty pounds,” he said proudly.
I instantly realized that I had made a false assumption about the intention of his question. He wasn’t trying to probe into information most adults would label out-of-bounds. He just wanted to share the fact that he’d reached the fifty-pound mile marker himself—big news for a kid his age—and had determined that the polite thing to do was to ask me if I wanted to share my weight before he took his turn.
It reminded me of two things:
I love kids. That’s why I chose to write for them.
“Assumptions” cause misunderstandings in life, but they can be a handy tool for writers.
Here are just a few of the ways I’ve used “assumptions” as a writer, so you can share them with your writing students:
I challenge assumptions. I often discover I’ve fallen into the trap of assuming certain things must be true about my character, his or her motivations, what the antagonist is really up to, or what has to happen next. When I shake things up and challenge every assumption I have about the story, it grows more surprising and intriguing.
I have my characters make assumptions about other characters. As I repeated over and over this week on my school visit, conflict is the thing that keeps readers turning pages. And there’s nothing like mistaken assumptions to cause conflict between characters.
I assume that there’s something that I haven’t made clear in my early drafts. It’s likely clear in my head, but not yet clear on paper. So I seek out trusted early readers. I tell them their job is to be honest with me about anything that confuses them in the story, because I need to revise and fill those holes before a broader readership sees the piece.
I passed a mile marker this week, too: I was reminded of the importance of assumptions.