Trust Your Readers, They Know What’s Up

“Reading Corner” by Greg Williams. This is where I grew up.

Recently I started reading a book (which I will not name, however I can tell you it’s a debut YA published this year). It had a very intriguing premise and wonderful opening but somehow felt. . . wrong. Tension was high, pacing snappy, it was peopled with interesting and sympathetic characters, but my reading experience felt distant, separate. I was more aware of the physical act of reading the book than I was of the story. It made me feel self-conscious, like I was reading my own work. Was I being too critical? Was I actively on the lookout for poor writing, and therefore vindicated when I found it?

So I put the book away and started another, from an author whose debut came out in the late 80s. Same ingredients: interesting premise, wonderful opening, great pace and characters. Except this time, I was immediately immersed in the story and lost several pleasant hours before I even stopped to take a breath.

What happened? Why was this book different from the first? I tried to chalk it up to personal preference, perhaps even my state of mind at the time, but the more I thought about it, the more concrete my thoughts became. It wasn’t until writing yesterday’s post that I realized exactly what the problem was.

The first author hadn’t trusted me enough to figure things out for myself.

Reading is an experience. What the reader experiences is completely separate from what the writer experiences–and not just because the writer has a backstage pass. Readers bring a lot of baggage into a story: preconceived notions, different upbringing, prejudices and preferences. For example: they can be told over and over that a beautiful woman has blond hair, but if they personally find blond hair displeasing, they’re going to cast her as a brunette. That’s part of the magic of reading. We’re not restricted to the vision of anyone, not even the writer.

However. That magic can be impeded. And when it is, it’s usually the writer’s fault.

It can be very tempting to spell everything out for a reader. After all, they don’t know, do they? They only have what you tell them, and hey–you’re the artist here, not them. How can you trust them to get it right? So you hold their hand, explaining everything they need to know to fully experience your world, your ideas, your. . . unmitigated genius.

Because of this tendency, a common piece of advice given to inexperienced writers is this: “Show, don’t tell.” Let the reader figure things out from well-placed evidence and concrete details instead of blatant explanations.

This is great advice. It allows readers to be more engaged in the magic of the story and avoids insulting their intelligence. Ultimately, I think that’s why I couldn’t get into that first author’s book. He didn’t trust me, didn’t leave me any room to figure things out for myself. He connected all the dots, covered every point, even told me how to feel about what was happening to his characters.

I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all. And neither does anyone else.

Reading something like this pushes readers out of the story, effectively telling them, “You don’t know any better.” Most of the time it’s not overt; most readers won’t be able to pinpoint what’s wrong with the story. But the cumulative effect is strong enough to alienate them, and, worst-case scenario, kick them out of your story.

How do you know what to show and what to tell? Another piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: “Do not confuse what the writer needs to know with what the reader needs to know. They are not the same thing.” And this is where things start to get complicated. Because, as an inexperienced writer (heck, any writer), it’s hard to know the difference.

Next time, I’ll share some thoughts about what happens when writers take “Show, don’t tell” too far, swinging toward the opposite end of the spectrum and not telling readers anything. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and one I’m just now starting to climb out of.

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10 Comments

Filed under books, writing

10 responses to “Trust Your Readers, They Know What’s Up

  1. I know what you mean about not trusting readers. I go to a writer’s critique group weekly. I find this is a major problem for beginning writers. It takes a lot of self-confidence from a writer to get past that. And the self-confidence comes from writing lots and lots of stories. The other thing I see is what is called an info-dump. I just want to tell them to get on with the story and quit giving me all this information I do not need.

    • Self confidence! That seems to be the solution for so many, many writing issues. Maybe that’s why writers are often plagued by self doubt, which snowballs into more issues, more doubt, until finally you pull out your hair and seriously start considering a career in retail to be a more productive use of your time.

      Of course, this has *never* happened to me!

      Infodumps will be addressed next time, haha. I don’t know how many times I have to remind myself that backstory doesn’t count as conflict. Nobody cares!

  2. Really liked your post. I think as a writer it is hard to get the balance between the ‘show and tell’ right. In my creative writing seminars one of my tutors described it as working with a lens that zooms in and out. The zooming in being the more detailed showing and zooming out being the telling. The trick is knowing when to employ these different techniques.

  3. emuse

    I agree with this so much! It’s a delicate balance, to drop a bit of a hint now and then. I’ve generally found that if I know the ending, the book will drop it’s own hints. I don’t have to try.

  4. Thanks for writing about this, I’m not a seasoned writer so I feel this might be a problem I didn’t even know I had!

  5. you wrote: “It can be very tempting to spell everything out for a reader. After all, they don’t know, do they?”

    what drives me nuts is not only that but when readers and even editors say, “you need to give the reader more information here. what’s so and so thinking in this situation? etc etc?” i always write from the closed third person POV – the only information i have is the information inside the narrator’s head and what she gets told/learns/finds along the way. i’m not going to break POV just because one silly person thinks the audience needs more information.

    i bared my soul about it here: https://marigarden.wordpress.com/2011/01/15/i-refuse-to-give-away-my-plot/

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