When I learned to drive as a teen (yes, they had cars back then, shut up), one of the more puzzling statements in my DMV-supplied manual was: “Passing is a cooperative venture.” This didn’t make sense until I was in a situation where a guy in front of me kept speeding up to avoid my attempts to pass him. I don’t know what his problem was, maybe a little too much testosterone in the bloodstream, but that’s when I realized that the act of passing is a team sport. I have to speed up, and in a legal, safe place, he has to let me pass him.
In a similar way (hopefully with fewer dirty looks and obscene gestures), so is writing. Writers want readers. We want to make our stories accessible, but there’s a fine line between accessibility and spoon-feeding. For the reader, there’s a fine line between “I don’t know what the heck this guy is going on about” and “enough, already, I get that he’s angry. Stop hitting me over the head with it. I’m gonna go read a different book now.”
The ideal is to meet each other halfway: the reader does a little work to make the connections; the writer does a little work to make them reachable.
But the author can mess this up in a big way, and sometimes that’s just the result of not having enough writing experience to be confident in his or her work. Here’s a typical example:
“You…you…” Celia’s voice shook. Drawing herself up tall, her eyes narrowed into slits as she shoved a finger in Norman’s face and said through clenched teeth, “If you ever do anything like that again you’ll be singing soprano.” She was really angry.
Okay…seriously? You just showed me her voice shaking. You showed me some intimidating body language and threatening dialogue. So you don’t need step on your own foot to tell me she’s angry. We get it. A few more passages like this and the reader is bound to feel a little insulted.
Here’s another way writers display their lack of confidence:
“It was dark, so I couldn’t tell if it was Muriel breaking into his car. I’m sorry,” Tess said apologetically.
“Don’t worry about it,” Brandon reassured.
“But I can’t help it,” she said worriedly. “She’s still out there. Who knows what she’ll do next?”
I’ve exaggerated a little here to make the point. Loading your dialogue tags with “blind” emotions doesn’t help the reader. In fact, it can make it downright confusing at worst and vague at best. You’re telling the reader how to feel, how the characters feel, instead of drawing us into the action by showing Tess’s hands fluttering with the apology, her face showing the contrite expressions that would let the reader draw the conclusion that she’s apologetic instead of, say, faking it because she might be Muriel’s accomplice. We don’t see Brandon perhaps gaze down at her with compassion, confidence, or even disregard or pity. We don’t see him press a strong hand to her arm, all body language that would let us feel the emotion passing between them. We don’t see Tess, still worried despite Brandon’s statement. Or maybe she’s faking it. You don’t have to let your characters chew the scenery, but give your reader a way in.
Compare that with (and, of course, this is only one of many possibilities):
“It was dark, so I couldn’t tell if it was Muriel breaking into his car.” Tess glanced up at Brandon and then, folding her arms across her chest, swept her gaze away. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he muttered, scratching away at his clipboard.
Tessa eased closer and enjoyed his reaction: the raised brow, the step backward. “But I can’t help it,” she said, biting at her lower lip. “Muriel’s still out there. Who knows what she’ll do next?”
We could go in another direction using the same dialogue and come out with a completely different tone and subtext, but that shows how important your role is as the author: meeting the reader halfway. And, hopefully, without inducing road rage.