Monday, February 22, 2010

Trust Me, I'm a Reader

Writers have trust issues sometimes.

We worry whether or not readers will get what we're trying to do. Will they spot that oh so subtle hint? Will they get the subtext? Is the back story clear without having to spell it out? We worry that they'll miss something, so we go and bash them over the head with it.

And that's bad.

For one thing, it often leads to bad writing, because we're explaining, not dramatizing. For another, the reader who does pick up on the subtly starts thinking, "yeah, yeah, you told me this already, I got it" and gets annoyed at the repetition.

Readers are smart folks and they love books, and they've been around the literary block once or twice. They know the tricks we use, and they pick up on a lot of what we do. And quite often, they see stuff that we never intentionally did, but are way cool anyway. (and then we pretend like we did that all along)

The urge to explain can be hard to overcome, but next time you feel that readers just won't get it unless you spell it out for them -- resist. Trust that they will get it, that you have done enough, and that the clues aren't as obscure as you think they are. Because odds are, they will, you have, and they aren't. Believe in your words and the readers of those words.

And if you really, truly, will all certainty feel you need to do more, then do it in a way that isn't explaining it. Add more clues, more background details, more subtle hints. Nudge your reader in the direction you want them to go.

Because figuring out stuff is a lot more fun than being told stuff.


  1. That's what beta readers are for :-)

  2. Although, I think it depends on the audience too. Figuring out what is too subtle is harder when you're writing for a younger audience, and your critiquers are experienced adult readers. I remember in 7th grade, half the class didn't pick up on the subtext at the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, even though most adults would have gotten it.

  3. One thing you learn quickly when writing poetry is that if you have to explain, there's a problem with what you were trying to do--not with the reader's intelligence. It’s another facet of the writer knowing everything behind the scenes, and the reader knowing nothing.
    For example, if a joke depends on something a character did before the story begin, you don’t get around that by explaining the joke. Either you include the relevant scene by starting earlier or using a flashback, or you drop the joke. Goes for references, jokes, getting out of a tight spot with a little bit of cleverness, or anything your character is doing.

    Of course, as Livia said, you have to keep your audience in mind. If the book is being marketed mainly to people who like sports, a programming joke is liable to go right over their heads.

  4. Too true. I've recently realized that my first few hundred words of a worldbuilding scene can often be cut by a third, because I'm still working it out myself and therefore go into more detail than is appropriate.

    I also have to bear in mind that my writing has to make sense to someone outside of my particular realm of experience. A narrator who considers herself immodest if a hint of cleavage shows will bewilder some readers if not handled well. (I used to be uncomfortable showing my collarbone, so I've improved.)

    BUT that doesn't mean the writer needs to tell the reader point-blank why the narrator's uncomfortable in a fitted blouse. Why not have her tugging her front up, while her friend assures her she looks fine and no cleavage is showing?

  5. I try and remember what I want when I read in a book and implement it into my story, it seems to be working very well!!!

  6. oh by the way I have an award for you over at my blog!

  7. Great post. All writing, really, is about steering the reader - to feel things, to be curious about things.

  8. This is one of the problems in working with a critique group which only meets on a weekly, monthly or twice-monthly schedule. The critiquers tend to forget what has gone before, and a common comment is, "You need to explain this."

  9. I agree, Livia, you do have to keep the reader in mind to know what's subtle and what's over their head.

    Aw, thanks Jen!