Writers, Trust Your Readers

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

~J.J. Azar

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50 thoughts on “Writers, Trust Your Readers

  1. A.S. Akkalon

    How much do I need to spell things out? This is a perennial problem for me, which I’m currently grappling with in the context of backstory. How much do I need to spell things out and how much can I trust the reader to piece together or intuit? It’s a hard question for a writer to answer, and one reason outside eyes are invaluable.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. It’s a real struggle, and I don’t think there is a definite answer (as is the case with most things related to writing)! Nobody will ever know our stories more intimately than you or I, so having an outside pair of eyes read through and have them and note inconsistencies and redundancies is key.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I beta read for an author one time; I got 3/4 through their manuscript but had no idea what the main character looked like. Hair and eye color? No idea. The author explained that he always imagined the characters however he wanted when he read, despite the descriptions given (like you mentioned here) and so he had forgotten to write ANY descriptions at all about the MC! He described side characters flawlessly though, lol.

    I agree that the reader shouldn’t be babied the whole way through. I hate when everything is explained like I’m an idiot. I used to think it had to do with the intended audience of a book (as in I was somehow only reading Middle Grade and YA or something), but now I know that isn’t true. It’s just crappy writing.
    I think that sort of relates to the bread crumb thing too. Some of those crumbs might go over reader’s heads or they might be missed entirely, but that’s what makes multiple read throughs so amazing!

    About letting the reader create the image for themselves: I think that is important for backstory too. I found myself deleting loads of specific information about my characters’ pasts on later edits because I realized I was spoon feeding the reader and info dumping. It doesn’t matter what she majored in in college; I already said she went, and my story takes place three years later (for example). I still KNOW all those details I cut, so I can always mention them later if it becomes relevant (the book I’m thinking about is the first in a series).

    We should probably swap manuscripts when you finish yours. I don’t if I like westerns, but I can still offer feedback about characterization, grammar, and stuff. I’m intrigued by the way you described detailing scenes and characters at the beginning of your MS but not later. Part of me totally gets it and loves it, but another (smaller) part of me worries that you might take it too far.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, we’re on the same page here! I figure that if an author finds a particular type of detail abhorrent, he or she could omit it, but when it’s a detail so crucial as what the main character looks like, it has to be there, even if you anticipate a reader will disregard it (which is unlikely, of course).

      What’s nice about detail and those little breadcrumbs you referred to is they’re there for the keen reader who enjoys reading every word (that’s me). You want to throw description my way? So long as it’s well written and exciting, I’ll play ball. The issue with that is that a segment of readers simply will not care. Balance is the name of the game!

      You are entirely correct about omitting backstory. For most characters, I have a near-full backstory in my toolbelt, this way I can pull segments out as you described and weave it into the story appropriately. No matter what, I will always know more about my characters than what makes it to the page, but that makes the writing better and the world more immersive, I think.

      I appreciate your offer to swap manuscripts. I look forward to the day I have a manuscript to swap! 😀 I’m still deciding how best to pitch the book, because I see the Western genre as the dullest of the bunch, frankly, and my story is not a conventional western. I can’t say more because, as I said, I’m working on the pitch, but in time!…

      And believe me, that bit about detailing scenes less as the story progresses is a far more minor a thing than the post may let on. I have a character named Shoushan whose eyebrows quiver when he gets nervous. I begin by describing how his eyebrows twitch, what it does to his face, etc. As time goes on, I’ll refer to his eyebrows freaking out in some way or other. Same action, less wordy. Thank you for stopping by and posting such an insightful comment, RQ!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, the post I’ve been waiting for (one of them) from your list. Very good post.

    I tried something different with the novelette IRONCLAD a year ago. I wanted it to be tight and concise, fast and in the moment. This motto for this particular book is “less is more.”

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Actually, yes it is. It’s about the only piece I’ve done in present tense. The first 5 chapters are written and open to public viewing as excerpts. I’m working on completing the novelette over the next few months. It will be released in the fall. The page with the info and links is here https://evablaskovic.com/short-fiction/novelette/. You can click on the chapter links that say “Read.” You will be redirected to the site where these chapters are posted. Actually, if you do read them, let me know what you think.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Present tense is an odd thing that I’m willing to give a try. Thank you for the link! If I find a spare moment to read them, I certainly will, and I’ll be sure to let you know!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I try to keep in mind that film will always do visuals better than books, because that’s exactly what it was designed for. What books can do better than any other form of storytelling is showing character’s internal thoughts and feelings. Because of that, I tend to keep my descriptions as short as possible, letting the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps, while I focus more on the strength of the medium.

    I enjoyed the irony of using Lost gifs while talking about audience trust. That show asked questions masterfully, leaving a trail of deliciously intriguing breadcrumbs as you say, but then slapped the audience in the face with an ending that answered nothing. A great example of the best and worst in storytelling.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Gavin, I appreciate you sharing your method. I’m always fascinated to know how other writers operate and view these sorts of things.

      I’m glad you caught the irony of the Lost gifs. It’s a lesson in storytelling for reasons good and bad, just as you said. Nonetheless, I’m a huge fan, even of the ending, though on a technical level, there is much to be said. Thanks for stopping by! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you dug it, Justin! I haven’t really incorporated my own novel-in-the-works in these speculative posts up until this point. I’m happy to hear it worked for you.

      Like

  5. Awesome post, and you make some really good points. I love when authors leave breadcrumbs, it definitely makes for an interesting read and makes you feel like you are doing some detective work as well. Robert Jordan gives soooooo much detail, sometimes bordering on too much. I love when I read a book and I can decide exactly what the scenery looks like, or what the person is wearing.

    I also like how you brought your book into it and the feedback you got. Feedback is so important, and helps us grow. I also love the Lost gifs lol. I loved that show but holy moly, I don’t think the producers knew where the show was going at times haha.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Robert Jordan goes nuts with the description, though some moments are more dense than others. The true test of will comes when there comes to be herds of Aes Sedai. Every shawl color and tug of the dress is noted with every cool stare and name. It is a lot.

      I was just telling Justin that this is the first time I incorporated my own novel-in-the-works into an analytical post like this, so I’m glad it went over well! I agree with you on Lost too. You summed it up brilliantly haha. Thank you for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This a great post and you’ve posed an interesting question J.J. that’s difficult to answer. I do like visuals and backstories because it makes me feel part of the story, but on the other hand, I’ve read books that just go into way too much detail. For example, in Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches, she described every single minute detail in her character’s life and I finally gave up half way through the book after a scene where her heroine was drinking tea and the entire method was drawn out over 2-3 pages. Argh! I think I’m rambling at this point, so I’ll stop here.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I couldn’t answer any questions, so more questions is what we got :D. Visuals and backstories are important, but excess of it is no good. Another meat analogy: If detail is fat, then I want a story to be a like a properly-prepared Ribeye. A hearty trim of fat, but if its trim is too slim or too thick, the story suffers. Thank you for readings and sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You and me both. I’m sitting here in Ethics pondering the moral soundness of diving out the window. Is the motivation intrinsic or extrinsic? The world may never know, but the heart wants what the heart wants. Ribeye is my favorite cut of meat.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. This is so tough. And since I am not a writer, I can only offer my thoughts as a reader.

    I recently rated a hyped title pretty low. One of the biggest downfalls was the amount of “fluff” involved. It was really odd because the writing was so fluid, yet everything was described in the most tedious details. I was ready to pull my hair out at times.

    I want to be trusted by my author. I do not want to feel like I completely lack imagination or the ability to speculate. If I did, I would not read so much most likely. Yet some do feel the need to spoon feed the details and spell it out.. ugh.

    What do I want when I crack the spine?

    In terms of character – The initial introductions are ok with some additional fluff or detail. Create a solid image to help paint the visual. I think it is expected. But refrain from going overboard with this later. I do not need to hear about his eyes or her lips twenty more times. I got it. Why? Because you told me.

    In terms of world building – Here is were you can break the rules or lean on them some. I am a fantasy reader so world construction is everything. I like them vast and rich. You can definitely get away with more here, so long as it is not taking you 20 minutes to describe that old tree in the center of the forest haha. But I like this to be vivid!

    And then there is the plot. This is so hard. It has to be detailed enough to present a solid story, but I want to be left guessing and plotting on my own some. As long as you provide the clear ending, I want to work for it a bit in the middle. I like to flex my brains when I read. If you just hand it to me, I will hand it back 😉

    Sorry. Not sure if any of that helps or sounds like atrocious rambling haha.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is great, Danielle! It’s helpful to me as a writer and it contributes to the post. I think everything you said is on the mark.

      Once you know how a character moves and looks, hammering the description in again and again is senseless. Young me wanted to be trusted as well, and I’m looking to please him! I would much rather have all of the pieces on the table and require some brainpower from the reader than put all the pieces together at once and disappoint with an obvious/predictable plot.

      Description for the sake of worldbuilding is often extensive, but as you said, so long as the author doesn’t linger on a tree, it can prove a joy.

      I really appreciate you taking the time to read and leave such a thoughtful comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I really don’t care for extensive description, to be honest. If description becomes too extensive I’ll skip over it or skim it. Moby Dick in describing the whiteness of the whale? Nope, not for me. I get it, man, the whale is white. It’s a sperm whale, I know what color they are, I don’t need similes and metaphors for days. I do not need you to compare the whale to every other white animal on God’s green earth. I have seen the color white. Too. Much. All right, this is actually probably a relatively “easy” example of something that’s gone too far, but I’m gonna do something here you might not like – I also don’t care for Jordan’s level of detail. I do actually like Jordan, but the detail is definitely detail that I will skip over.

    That said, I do recognize that all readers are not like me, so in my own writing, I do add a wee bit more description than I would usually go for. My editor actually sent me this quote from Stephen King when we were discussing this very thing, and I liked it and thought I’d pass it on if you hadn’t read it: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

    On your second point about plot, I agree we definitely don’t want to spell things out, because that’s boring and terrible, nor do we want to assume our readers know things because those things are locked in our head. This is where beta readers and editors are so, so important. I also saw some good comments about the “information dump” which I’m guilty of, and my editor has to scold me for all the dang time. For this point, my point of view is when all else fails – don’t forget the adage all we writers love to hate: Show, don’t tell.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I laughed at your case against Moby Dick. Funny stuff! 😀 I understand that Jordan’s level of detail isn’t for everyone. In most any other hands, I’d likely tear my hear out, but Jordan has a way of handling the detail which resonates with me.

      If I had known that brilliant Stephen King quote, I would have included it in this post! That is fantastic! Thank you for sharing it. King nails it.

      And it would seem that beta readers and editors are the best remedy for managing information (0r the lack thereof). Thank you for your insightful comment, Aimee. I always appreciate you stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. One of my weaknesses is not providing enough description. I have been called out for allowing people to walk into empty rooms, or worse, open space were they become talking heads :-). I think one of the issues with being an author, is you see and know everything in your head, so when you are reviewing an area that needs more detail it can be invisible to you. You have to have others review your work. Also I use a lot of foreshadowing. My reader knows something is up but they don’t have a lot of details so they have to keep reading to find out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, what a great explanation of how these things can be “invisible.” I agree, others have to review your work, otherwise we’ll miss things key and small. It’s an interesting combo, foreshadowing plus a slight lack in detail. That sounds like it could be a strong technique if handled well. Thank you for providing me a look into your method, I’m fascinated!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. That’s a very important question you tackled here. I too LOVE it when I’m challenged and prompted to think when watching movies or reading books. Christopher Nolan’s movies sure do that with so much ease. For example, The Dark Knight is a movie that just could have anyone who was willing to think, to think A LOT. But the magic of that movie was that it let the viewer give everyone his own interpretation. Multiple degrees of interpretation. And that’s what any creator should strive for. The Dark Knight could easily have been viewed at the first degree (by kids, for example) and be simply loved for the action and the villainy of Joker. But then others could push it to a second or even a third degree and see philosophical questions tackled, or even come up with very fascinating theories or how things came to be. I simply love anything that can be that complex. It’s definitely nice to have the “necessary” ingredients presented at first, but ultimately, a book/movie that pushes you to think about what had or what could happen is the way to go! Definitely enjoy hearing about your writing process and all these questions that pop up here and there while you’re writing your own book. From the sound of it, you have the right inspirations and ask the right questions! 😀

    – Lashaan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You do a great job using the Dark Knight as an example. You make a fantastic point. There are layers to the film in that it can be enjoyed casually or philosophically, and the great thing is that Nolan doesn’t force any of the messages or musings. As you said, Nolan sows the “necessary” ingredients presented at first, leaving it to the viewer. The same rules apply to written story in that respect. I would hate to come across as preachy, or like I’m making any sort of holier-than-though statement. Sow the seeds, let the reader reap them if they would like to. I am glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 3 people

  11. Very interesting thoughts in here. I understand the worry about trusting the readers as it’s something I ran into multiple times throughout my own novel! I like your analysis, though. I think you’re on the right track for how to handle this.

    “…give your reader bread crumbs with some peppered olive oil!” Love this line! Not only is it accurate and effective, it’s also tasty. Now I’m thinking about the wonders of olive oil. Thanks, J.J.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Trusting the reader is definitely worth some pondering. I haven’t many conclusions, really, but I like to muse. Sometimes that’s the best way to learn.

      It was Alex Azar who taught me about the breadcrumbs, though the olive oil was my addition. 😀

      Liked by 3 people

  12. Ok first off, I love Inception and you are one hundred percent right that DiCaprio was asleep at the end!! (I do tend to think that people that think he was awake are some kind of extreme optimist because they refuse to admit the top was spinning so that they can go on believing in the happy ending…)
    And secondly- you are so right!! I don’t want to be spoonfed, but there has to be breadcrumbs for the reader. Personally my technique is different though (and obviously won’t appeal to everyone) cos I know that I am heavily influenced by Hardy and Steinbeck- you know, the kind of authors that don’t just throw a steak at the audience they throw the whole damn cow… so yeah, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to doing this in third person narratives… But obviously this is a personal taste thing- cos some readers (aka me) like the whole omniscient narrator interjecting with a *booming voice* to point stuff out… and others don’t- annnd I’m rambling, so I’m gonna stop- but this was a great post- I love reading about which writing techniques people employ 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You are so right in agreeing with me about Inception 😉 I would go even further and argue that those reality advocates who use the top as justification for their incorrect views are wrong to even refer to the top! (It’s not Cobb’s totem, so it’s not to be trusted)!

      The whole booming-voice omniscient narrator thing is something I totally understand and enjoy in many cases! There is a grandeur to it that has the capacity to engage the reader. Welcome back to WordPress, thank you for stopping by!

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Pingback: 200 Followers + Q/A Announcement! – J.J. Azar

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