Writer’s Craft #103 The Plinko Metaphor

Helen Marshall
Helen Marshall

Aurora-winning poet Helen Marshall is an author, editor, and self-proclaimed bibliophile.
Her poetry and fiction have been published in
The Chiaroscuro, Paper Crow, Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Tor.com. She recently released a collection of poems entitled Skeleton Leaves from Kelp Queen Press and her collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side was released from ChiZine Publications in 2012.
Currently, she is pursuing a Ph. D in medieval studies at the University of Toronto, for which she spends a great deal of her time staring at fourteenth-century manuscripts. Unwisely. When you look into a book, who knows what might be looking back.


When readers come to your work, they come to it from many different perspectives. Some of them will be your ideal readers; many of them won’t be. So rather than thinking of every reader as starting the story at the same place, it’s useful to keep in mind that like in Plinko, you can start the reading experience from any number of positions. Your job, as the author, is to try to take these divergent readers and bring them all to approximately the same place. That is, your story—as you want it received, or as close to that as possible. If you make the entry too narrow, you leave a lot of readers you could capture outside the box.
But on top of that, let’s say that each of these nodes is a major aspect of the story—plot turns, characters, reveals, reversals, etc. Depending on their position, when your readers hit these nodes they can spin off in all kinds of directions. Some of these are okay. Some of these will be entirely spurious, and will throw your reader out of the story.
The biggest thing having a story critiqued by eighteen writers taught me was how easily eighteen people can get different meanings or can turn on different nodes. As I say, sometimes you want this. But a lot of the time, the reader is going to be spinning out on something you had no idea was there.
So when editing, go back and think about where the reader needs to coming from, what information he or she needs, in order to get where you want him to go. I know it sounds easy, but it isn’t. So practice. Ask your first readers. Ask your editors. If someone doesn’t end up where you wanted them to be then it’s because you didn’t get them there. Yes, readers read badly. They read sloppily. They read quickly.


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