Writing is communication. The content of the communication changes, and as a SciFi and Fantasy writer, I’m usually commuting fantastical fiction. But communication involves a sender and a receiver, a writer and a reader.
It’s usually easy to gauge whether or not your message is being received when you’re talking to someone face-to-face. Even on a phone call or via text, it’s possible to evaluate feedback offered by the other person in the conversation.
One of the challenges a writer faces is a matter of trust. They have to trust themselves to convey their message clearly, and they have to trust the reader to receive the message and see the story in their mind.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a short story as a Christmas give for Melissa. I ran into a time crunch so I asked my friend Jennifer Brozek to take a quick look at it for me. I wanted the gift to be special, and I wanted my story to be the best I could make it. Jen went above and beyond and in the process, taught me something about writing I needed to learn.
She said, “You really need to trust the reader more. Some of the details you gave were toooooo much.”
And she was right! After she mentioned it, I started to see all these places in my stories where I was trying so hard to get my ideas across that I was hitting the reader over the head with repetition and an overabundance of details.
I learned my lesson, but it’s something I still struggle with. I’m desperate to get the vision in my head onto the page. That desperation leads to over-describing. It’s something I watch for now during revisions.
In my case, it isn’t so much that I don’t trust the reader. I don’t trust myself. My confidence ebbs and flows when it comes to my writing. Sometimes I feel like I’m on top of my game, but most of the time I wonder if I’m just shoveling manure with my keyboard. Not trusting myself to tell the story is effectively the same thing as not trusting the reader.
What it Means to Trust the Reader
Trusting the reader means allowing them to fill in the blanks. If you go overboard with your descriptions, you don’t leave room for the reader to be an active participant in the story.
This is an important point, and one that I think a lot of writers may not realize. It goes back to what I said at the beginning, which is that writing is communication. When someone reads your story, they are participating in the event, and they are active.
A reader’s imagination is the place where the story takes place, and as such, the reader has control over all the details the writer leaves blank. The reader becomes attached to their contributions and may even swear up and down that these details were in the story all along.
As an example, let’s look at Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. The magic wielding ladies from The White Tower are called Aes Sedai.
What did you just hear in your head when you read “Aes Sedai?”
Unless you went to the glossary at the back of one of the books like I did, you probably heard something along the lines of “aze seday.” The author’s intention, however, is that it should be pronounced: EYEZ seh-DEYE.
The sound of an author’s made-up words only scratch the surface. Other details, visual, auditory, and tactile, are filled in by the reader naturally and readily. This is a good thing, because these added details give the reader a stake in the story and makes them more invested. Sometimes, the things they imagine are even greater than what the author envisioned.
When describing a character or setting or some action, pick the details that are important and put them on the page. Pick just enough to get the point across. Everything else is for the reader to fill in on their own.
Here’s an example from the very beginning of Spin City:
The stench of stale beer and old cigar smoke rolled over me as I ducked into the bar. Broken lights and motionless ceiling fans made shadows that pooled at the feet of empty tables. A mechanical server stood behind a counter, its single optic directed towards me like an accusation. A perfect place to meet a client that wanted discretion. Also not a bad place to get drunk alone.
It’s obviously a dive bar. Do you see it clearly? I’ve provided the smell of smoke and beer, and I’ve set the lighting. I also included a “mechanical server,” whatever that is. It sounds like some kind of robot, and it helps tell the reader that we’re probably in the future. Everything else about the bar, the reader makes up in their mind.
What sort of things did you add to the description? Did you imagine the floor feeling a little bit sticky under foot as the main character walked deeper into the establishment? Were there pictures on the walls? Was there a jukebox?
I don’t know exactly what you see in your head when you read that paragraph, but I trust that you see enough of it that we can enjoy it together.
Yesterday, I talked about sensitivity readers, and I think tonight’s topic dovetails with it in an interesting way.
With characters, if you don’t mention the race and gender, the reader is usually going to assume white and male. It does not seem to matter if the either the writer or the reader are white males. That seems to be the default given to any character that is not described otherwise.
The default can be shifted during the course of the story, but it all still comes back to writing with intention.
Let’s close with an example of dramatic storytelling where the story teller, in this case Matthew McConaughey’s character in A Time to Kill, uses everything I’ve just been talking about to create a powerful scene.