Use Inference to Say More by Saying Less

Do you know how to use inference?

by Deborah Owen

All creative writers use inference, whether by choice or by accident. So, you may be thinking, “If I can use it by accident, why should I study it?” You should study it because you can use the technique more effectively if you understand all the ramifications involved.

This is inference: Mary went into labor. She had a monkey. These are the types of headlines you see in the Enquirer and other such magazines. On the surface, one might assume the following:

  1. A woman had mated with a monkey and she got pregnant.
  2. The lady went to the hospital to give birth.
  3. Her baby wasn’t a child, it was a monkey.
  4. It was a historical event.
  5. This event would open new doors to the medical and scientific community.
  6. The news media would hound the monkey child throughout its life.
  7. Documentaries would undoubtedly be created.
  8. A movie would be in the making.

Thoughts would flood the reader’s mind. Was the woman on a safari? Did an ape molest her? Where were the other members of the safari? Was the woman married? How would her family accept the monkey baby? Would the monkey baby have human characteristics?

Or, you could read it the way I was thinking when I wrote it: Mary was in labor, and she owned a monkey. Do you see what inference can do?

Mystery writers often mislead their readers by dropping clues that can be interpreted in more than one way. Inference can also be used in riddles, jokes, and games.

Inference creates a mental puzzle for the reader to solve. The reader’s mind will always jump past the immediate and form its own conclusions based on the information it has been fed. If the writer so desires, he can change the mental image in the next sentence.

Another example:

The bride collapsed in tears and could not be consoled.

You might think:

  1. The groom didn’t show up for the wedding.
  2. Someone dropped the wedding cake.
  3. The organist or preacher could not be present.
  4. She stained or ripped her wedding gown.

We could imagine all sorts of things, but what I’m actually thinking is that her father died of a heart attack during the wedding. From what I said, however, it is unlikely that anyone would grasp that meaning. Readers will infer their own meaning from the given evidence and render their own conclusions. In other words, they will replace the lack of information with their own definition of what would cause a bride to collapse in tears.

Inference is a great tool. You can infer that a man is in love with his best friend’s wife without ever saying it. You can further infer that they are having a love affair and the husband knows nothing about it. If you introduce a gun into the equation, you can infer someone is going to die. Try your hand at inference. It’s fun.

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