“Something” or “Nothing”: What Do You Mean?

Back when I first began writing curriculum—da Vinci was still at the sketch stage of the Mona Lisa at the time—supervisors told my fellow co-workers and me to make our lessons engaging and fun. Though we saw the merit in lessons fitting that description, this sort of feedback frustrated my coworkers and me, because both terms are subjective, rather than measurable. What’s fun or engaging to one person might not be the same to another. But I gave it a shot. Sometimes I reached the target. Sometimes I didn’t.

Mona_Lisa

That feedback returned to my mind as I read a recent review of a young adult novel. Sorry. I don’t plan to divulge the name of the book or the reviewer. (Hint: The book was not written by anyone I know nor reviewed by anyone I know.) Her review interested me, because she spent the whole post explaining why she did not finish the book. Her biggest complaint was that nothing happened.

How many times have you said the same thing about a book or a movie? I know I’ve said that phrase dozens of times. But now that I think about it, what does “nothing” really mean in this context? “Nothing that engaged me?” “A lack of good action and tension”? “I was bored”? It’s really subjective, isn’t it? I struggle with filling in the blanks.

Do you ever ask yourself, What is the “something” that should have happened? Depends on the story, right? We might define “something” as “an event that moves the plot forward”; “exciting action”; “a scene that made me laugh”; “realistic dialogue that made the characters come alive”; or in other ways.

I’m reminded of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Doerr spent three whole paragraphs talking about discoveries one of the main characters—Marie-Laure—made in the drawers of a cabinet. Drawers. In. A. Cabinet. Would you categorize that scene as “nothing happening”? Yet I was mesmerized by those paragraphs. Many other people probably felt the same way, because this book is a best-seller, a National Book Award finalist (click on the award to watch Doerr read a chapter of this book), and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

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We can credit Doerr’s magical prose. But some of the “zing” that makes this scene “something” as opposed to “nothing” is due to the imagination of the reader. Doerr invites us to come along on Marie-Laure’s journey of discovery. Oh, did I mention that this girl is blind? That’s not a spoiler. The book jacket tells you that much. We see what she can only “see” through touch.

I’m tempted to quote lines from that scene. But I won’t. I’m not trying to be obstinate, honest. As I mentioned, I was mesmerized. You might not feel that way, however. Some of the people who commented on an article I read recently on Doerr’s prose had a negative view of his work. But if you are curious about which scene I mean and want to decide for yourself whether or not it has that certain “something,” you can find it on pages 29-30 in the hardback.

Engaging. Fun. Nothing. Some aspects are purely subjective. But when offering feedback, the more specific and measurable one is, the better.

Why measurable? Well, I have to go back to curriculum writing for that. My colleagues and I were always told to make lesson objectives measurable. I found a quote on the subject in the Web article, “Writing Measurable Learning Objectives”:

When you begin creating a course, you want to design with the end in mind. The best way to approach this is to start by writing measurable, learning objectives. Effective learning objectives use action verbs to describe what you want your students to be able to do by the end of the course or unit.

“What you want your students to be able to do.” So, measurable feedback at the manuscript stage helps an author know what it is you want him or her to “be able to do”; in other words, to effectively fix his/her manuscript. Yeah, I know. Telling someone, “Nothing is happening,” is easier than saying, “This scene feels static to me, because Angela is passive, rather than active” or “This scene does not advance the plot. Perhaps you could take the character to the next threshold quicker.” But such feedback gives the author a more specific idea of the “something” you have in mind.

Some people are better able to gauge what nothing happened means. Not me. I need people to spell out what they mean. And I hope I can make the effort to provide clarity for someone else too.

Smith, Tracy. “Writing Measurable Learning Objectives.” TeachOnline. Arizona State University, 02 July 2012. Web. 13 June 2015.

Mona Lisa from en.wikipedia.org.