For the next couple of weeks I’d like to write about the relationship between the writer and his or her readers. This is a matter that came up during one of our panels at ConCarolinas, and I’ll address the particular aspect of the issue that we discussed in that panel next week. But this week, I’d like to write about something that my editor and I have talked about quite a bit over the years: Trusting our readers.
What does that even mean? Trusting our readers . . . to what? To not steal our books from the stores? To not read them while taking care to keep the spine uncracked, so that the book can be returned to the bookstore for a refund? To not trash our books in Amazon reviews just for the fun of it?
No, this is actually a writing issue. Trusting our readers, is, in some ways, similar to the familiar saying “Show don’t tell,” and it is particularly important for beginning writers. Certainly it was for me when I was starting out. Basically it means not giving your readers too much information, or, put another way, giving them enough information to understand what’s happening, but not so much that you preempt their sense of discovery. My editor scrawled “Trust your reader!” again and again when reading through my first couple of manuscripts, because I tended to explain too much. I was writing what I thought were complicated story lines and describing the motivations of complex characters. I wanted to be certain that my readers knew where I was going with each twist and turn of my plot, and so I left markers to make sure they “got it.”
My editor’s response was to say, as gently as he could, that while my plot was clever and my characters multidimensional, what I had written was not nuclear physics. The average reader would understand where I was taking him or her. More to the point, by explaining too much, by using those markers, I was denying my readers one of the great joys of reading: That feeling of epiphany that comes when we figure things out along with the characters we’re following. In what specific ways did my failure to trust my readers manifest itself? Well, for one thing, I described tone of voice too often. “She said, her tone suddenly urgent . . .” “He explained, obviously trying to sound comforting . . .” “She said with compassion. . .” All of those are dialogue attributions lifted directly from my first novel in its published form — these are the ones that slipped by my editor, or that he chose to ignore because some of my other passages were so egregious they needed more work. None of them needed to be more than “She said…” “He said…” “She said…” The actual dialogue and the context were enough to convey the emotions and thoughts behind what was said. I should have trusted my readers to get the rest. But I was young and new to the craft and I felt that I needed to explain it all.
Another example, also from that first novel: In discussing my main character’s struggle to learn to ride a horse, I describe how he overcomes the initial aches and pains of a long journey on horseback.
As they remounted and rode on, he also realized that his horsemanship had improved. He was being jolted less; he felt himself moving more in concert with the animal beneath him; and he sensed that his horse now labored less than it had, no doubt in response to his growing comfort and confidence.
Here’s how I’d write that passage today:
As they remounted and rode on, he also realized that his horsemanship had improved. He was being jolted less; he felt himself moving in concert with his animal; and he sensed that his horse now labored less than it had.
The stuff I cut was extraneous. Of course the horse is laboring less because he’s a better rider. My readers get that; they don’t need to have it explained. Trust the reader! Here’s a little trick I had to learn early on: When I find myself introducing or qualifying a passage with words like “No doubt” and “Obviously,” chances are the passage isn’t necessary.
As you can see, this really is a “Show don’t tell” issue. By trusting the reader we rely less on explication, we allow our characters and dialogue and action to tell the tale. Our storytelling becomes leaner, more direct. Because while the phrase we use is “Trust the reader,” what we’re really saying is “Trust yourself — trust your character development, your storytelling, your worldbuilding, your descriptions, your dialogue.” These days, when I find myself explaining too much my own internal editor kicks in and tells me that this is a symptom of a deeper problem. If I’m explaining too much it probably means that the plot lines aren’t clear enough in my own mind, or that I’m making my characters do things that are . . . well . . . out of character. In other words, it probably means that I’ve temporarily lost faith in the way I’m telling my story.
So how do we avoid these “Trust” issues? Well, to begin with I do my best to know as much about my characters, my world, and my plot as I can before I start writing. Now some of you may say, “Hey, I’m a seat of the pants writer, and it almost sounds like you’re telling me to outline.” Not at all. Pantsers can write a book without an outline but still know the story they’re telling. They can be familiar with all the background, the world they’ve built, the characters they’ve created, and they can know where a story is headed. Knowing all of that, having a clear vision of your project, can give you the confidence to trust your writing, even if you haven’t outlined your plot points. I also try to keep my prose directed and strong. When I slip into passive writing or start using vague filler words — “a bit” “somewhat” “obviously” etc. — that is usually a sign that I’ve lost my way and need to rethink where the story is going. Finally, I look for redundant passages. If I’m saying things more than once in order to drive home a point it probably means that something is wrong with what I’m writing.
So trust yourself, trust your reader. Have enough faith in your craft to believe that the story you’re telling is clear enough and compelling enough that your readers are paying attention. You’ll wind up with a better book. In the end, trusting your reader is self-fulfilling and reciprocal. If you write a book that’s lean and clear you’ll have justified the trust your reader placed in you when she took it off the bookstore shelf and spend her hard-earned cash to read it.David B. Coe http://MagicalWords.net http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com