Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Intelligence of Your Readers

In my early years of writing, I would often insult the intelligence of my readers, giving them every piece of information I possibly could, removing any opportunities for using the imagination. Some things are better left unsaid. There is a balance somewhere between vague and obvious, and I personally know a lot about erring on the side of obvious.

One of my biggest mistakes was what I call Scooby-Dooing the ending. In every episode of that old cartoon, everything tied up neat and pretty. We learned that the janitor dressed up like the jelly ghost in order to scare everyone away from his counterfeiting operation. I never walked away from an episode with questions in my mind, other than possible plot holes or why the team continued to fear these ghosts and monsters when none of them ever turned out to be real. Likewise, the endings of my stories left nothing unanswered, including what characters thought, why they thought it and what they planned to do next. I’m not saying that as writers we should completely ignore any of these ideas because that’s just being lazy with the story (and will likely result in gaps or points of nonsense within the plot). Just don’t unwrap a present at the end that has everything in it.

Another mistake I had was stating the obvious. A friend of mine suggested that I show character emotions rather than giving a straightforward description of a character’s emotional state, and that was a critical thing for me to learn. I often took the easy way out by throwing an adverb after the word “said” to let the readers know how that speaking character felt. By omitting the adverb and describing the character’s body language instead, I now left it up to the reader to decide what was felt.

One final example of my inexperience was the lack of foreshadowing. Things simply happened. Each plot point advanced to the next with perhaps a little mystery left in between if any. There was nothing to consider, no clues to grasp (or if there were clues I made sure the reader saw them as plain as a forest fire). There should be hints of future events within the story and points that make the reader wonder about something that was not fully explained. A story that is constantly in a state of resolve can easily be set aside, a dreadful thought for any writer.

There is a trust relationship between the author and reader. On our part, we need to trust that the readers will grasp the subtle points and follow us where we lead them. We should make their journey exciting, giving them a maze and baiting them in certain directions until they come to the end. We shouldn’t be dragging them along a straight path. What fun is that?

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