By Janice Hardy. @Janice_Hardy“Trust your reader.” You hear it all the time, but what exactly does that mean? Do you just assume they’ll figure out what you mean? That can lead to confusion, which you certainly don’t want, so what’s a writer to do? Who do they really trust?
Believe in Yourself
Trusting your reader is all about believing that they can and will pick up on the things you leave as clues in your story. Not just mystery-type clues, but hints about back story, world building, characterization, etc. The things you write and then wonder, “Will my reader get this or do I need to explain more?”
As someone who writes for teens, I face this every time I sit down to write. My youngest readers are ten years old, my oldest are adults. While I want every age to be able to sit down and enjoy my books, if I write for the adult audience, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll leave my younger readers behind. Because what each of those readers pick up on is different.
Adults have a larger world experience. We’ve seen it all, know how stories go, anticipate and expect. But younger readers are still building their experiences and don’t have the same pool to draw from. What’s obvious to an adult who’s seen it before isn’t obvious to a teen who hasn’t.
This is where that whole “know your audience” thing plays a role, because you have to know who you’re writing to, to know how to trust them.
I did a workshop years ago with one of my fantasy novels. There were folks in that group who didn’t read fantasy, so a lot of what I was doing was lost on them. They didn’t “speak fantasy,” so common tropes and devices flew right past them. Naturally, they asked for clarification in their critiques, and I looked hard at what they said, but most of the time I ignored it. What they wanted was something that would be obvious to a fantasy reader. Explaining it would be like explaining to a modern reader how a telephone works.
Other times they pinpointed something that seemed logical to me as a fantasy writer, but when I looked closer, I realized that I could do more there, and I was excluding those who were new to fantasy, but wanted to read more of it. These comments were very valuable, as they helped me make my book more accessible.
To trust your reader, you have to first know your reader, and to do that, you need to know who you’re writing for.
Who is your reader?
“Everyone who likes books” isn’t a good answer, because it’s not true. I love books, but there are genres I don’t read. If your book is one of them, your book isn’t for me. I write fantasy for teens and ’tweens. My readers are in the 10 to 17 range.
What does this tell you?
Who your reader is tells you how much you need to explain. I know my youngest reader is 10 (and sometimes lower) so I need to make sure that my story can be understood and grasped by a ten-year-old reader. I’m not writing down to them, but I’ll make sure that the concepts, vocabulary, themes, etc. are all things they’ll understand, or can easily look up or ask about if need be. (Part of writing for younger readers is to encourage them to learn). So sometimes, things will seem obvious to my adult readers who happen to like teen fiction. But I won’t make it harder to understand to satisfy them because they aren’t my target reader. And if they enjoy teen fiction, then they already know that sometimes, stuff is obvious to adults.
Genre plays a role
As I mentioned earlier, every genre has its own set of rules and its own language. Fans of that genre know these rules and speak these languages. They get how things work in that genre. You can just do it and they’ll get it.
Where the line?
This is the hard part, knowing what’s too much and what’s not enough. In a first draft, I err on the side of caution and explain things. (In a show way, not a tell way) Sometimes you don’t know where the best spot for those clarifications are, so I put them in where they feel right and edit out later. If you have a good crit partner or group, they can provide valuable insight into where you need more or less info. If you’re on your own, then let your manuscript sit for a month or two before you revise. Then read through it in one or two sittings.
I’ve found that repetition jumps right off the page when I’m reading large chunks after some time away. I get that “I just read this” feeling and know that’s an area I might not need that info. I can mark or cut it and know that by that point in the story, readers will get what I mean because I already explained it earlier.
The reverse is also true. I’ll spot things and get that, “Wait, did I ever say that?” feeling and wonder if I ever told readers about it. It’s easy to go back and find the first reference and clarify.
When you’re not sure?
If you just aren’t sure if they’ll get it, go ahead and add a little. Key word: little. A word or two, a line, a detail that nudges in the right direction. Resist the urge to spell it out, because those are usually the areas where you tell too much and trust too little. Pay particular attention to what you say. You want things that suggest, not state outright.
Spelling it out
You can also look for areas in which you do spell it out. Common trouble spots here are in the emotional or motivational areas. Writers often do a great job of showing why, then doubt themselves and add in a told “this is why” statement at the end.
No, it couldn’t be. Bob shook his head, but the thought wouldn’t leave. Jane, betray him? No way. He just couldn’t believe she’d do that to him.See that there on the end? “He just couldn’t believe she’d do that to him.” Isn’t it pretty clear from his reaction that he feels that way? It shows how Bob feels and why, then I go and muck it all up by telling you what I just showed you.
It’s hard to know when it’s too much, but the tendency is to over explain, not under. When you find yourself thinking, “Will they get that?” look back for the clues that will allow the reader to get it. If you find them, don’t worry about it. If you don’t, then add a few.
And trust that your reader will get it.