Hello, lovely ladies and classy gents!
Today, I want to dive into an issue which has been irking me for quite some time. The idea of trusting the audience is something that I once thought to be simple. As a young lad, my father and I went to the movies nearly every weekend. What I wanted was simple: I wanted for the director of whatever movie I was seeing to trust the audience. I did not want to be spoon fed, I wanted to figure things out for myself. I wanted to think. This is one of the reasons why Inception struck me so profoundly that I deemed it my favorite movie upon leaving the theater. It remains my favorite to this day even after over 20 viewings across the years (If you think DiCaprio was awake at the end, you are sorely mistaken and we can talk about that in the comments. Don’t worry, I’m a professional. It’ll be okay).
Things have changed a bit for me. Now I’m in the creator’s position, except in my case, I’m writing a novel. The rules are different. When one commandeers a film, visual detail is obligatory. Shots must be framed and filled to portray moods and focus attentions. Yet when one wields a pen and tackles a blank page, the circumstances differ. Detail is no longer obligatory. The author must provide some detail, of course, enough to paint a living picture and a fluid understanding in the reader’s mind, but how much is too much? How little is not enough? This is what I’m wrestling with through the lens of trusting the reader. The issue is one of space: How much space should the author leave open for the reader to
1) create images?
2) unravel plots?
Let’s address the first point: When it comes to creating an image of a setting populated by characters, how much space should the author leave open for the reader to fill in himself/herself?
I have found that my writing is laden with an abundance of visual and sensory detail. (If you would like read a brief excerpt from my novel-in-the-works, you are welcome to do so here). Like any writer, I have a strong idea of what is populating my page at any given moment, and so I feel that, in order to convey the world to the reader, I have to write descriptively. Other writers prefer to write more concisely, offering key descriptions and leaving it at that. In many cases when I read, regardless of what the author describes a character as looking like, I tend to imagine whatever I want. So are my heavy descriptions futile? Perhaps for some readers. Nonetheless, I’m still seeking balance.
In some cases, I will set a scene using extensive detail. In other cases, perhaps when the dialogue is meant to be quick or there is sudden action taking place, I’ll forego the details and cut to the chase. I figure this provides a cushion to the reader to piece together what is happening for himself/herself while it also serves as a pacing technique. I think Robert Jordan showcases the technique of forgoing detail expertly. Typically, Jordan describes everything in his world with hyperfocused detail. The exception? Swordfighting. Instead of describing movements of those engaged in combat, he attributes names to the moves exercised by blade-wielders, names like ‘Swan Rises Over the Lake’ and ‘Horse Trots Through the Field.’ Descriptions in that vein brilliantly entrust the writing to readers’ imaginations.
Ultimately, I want to approach trusting the reader with filling in visual blanks as follows: The first time I introduce a setting or character, I won’t restrain myself from describing what I feel needs to be described. Over time, the necessity of such description about the same characters/settings will become unnecessary. I will trust the readers, at the point, to understand the desert as it is portrayed in my story, as it is a frequent setting. I will trust the readers to understand the intonation of my characters’ speech and their novel expressions after a time. I will still describe the settings and expressions, but I will describe them for the sake of indicating them rather than re-explaining them.
Trust applies perhaps more readily to the story element of plot (point 2). My younger self demands that I not spoon-feed the plot to my readers-to-be, and I certainly don’t want to let the kid down. Linear, predictable plots are no fun, but writing Inception is no easy task. How can an author trust the reader to bear not knowing something? How can an author handle withholding information from the reader and trust that he or she won’t shut the book and stop reading? I think the answer is simple: give your reader bread crumbs with some peppered olive oil! So long as your reader is given morsels of delicious bread at every turn, they will stick around for the main course and leave full and happy. But if you throw a steak at your reader soon as they sit down and rush them out the door soon as they finish, they won’t be charmed, they’ll be annoyed and frankly unimpressed.
Much the same, the bread will help you to make your dramatic reveals all the more impactful. “Oh, that was hinted at in Chapter 2! And in Chapter 5!” I learned this lesson after failing to leave bread for the reader.
Many months ago, I sent a very early draft of my novel-in-the-works’ first chapter to my cousin Alex Azar, author of Nightmare Noir. He gave me the following criticism about the passage below:
“This carpet, where did you get it?” the stranger demanded. His silver-green eyes frantically tore across every inch of the carpet’s ornate design. The question wasn’t particularly directed to either of the couple, and so both hesitated, unable to comprehend why the man could possibly be interested in a soiled rug.
Lynn-Holly shook her head profusely as if to rid herself of her confusion. “A client gave it to me. It was a gift.”
What does she do that she has a client? If this does take place in the 1800’s she wouldn’t really have a job unless she’s a hooker and her client is a john. – Alex Azar
I got a good laugh out of his criticism, but after I laughed, I searched for the earlier bit where I explained that Lynn-Holly was a seamstress to show him that he must have skipped over that part. Alas, I couldn’t find the part because I hadn’t written it! I know that Lynn-Holly is a seamstress, it’s no secret, but I forgot to tell the audience! Thus, this passage made no sense. This instance provided me an important lesson that if I want something to be so within the pages of my novel, there must be breadcrumbs. There must be context. If you give your reader bread, and the bread is good, and you refill the bread basket frequently, you can rest easy knowing that they will probably enjoy their steak when it comes.
So that’s all. What do you think? How do you go about trusting the reader? How do you balance detail with imagination? Mystery with reveal? Let’s talk!
Thank you for reading. As always, stay classy.