Do You Trust Your Readers?

Must have made a wrong turn at that last interjection…

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.

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

14 thoughts on “Do You Trust Your Readers?”

  1. Were you driving in Italy, Laurie?

    Well said. There’s a rule that when you know it you know it is not one to be violated. It is called R.U.E. Resist the Urge to Explain. Many writers violate it for lack of confidence, or literary cowardice; and because they don’t trust readers’ imagination. They end up explaining and showing the obvious, down to tell readers what they should feel reading the wonderfully detailed scene they’ve just written…

    and the writer’s just lost one more reader in the process.

    In writing, math is violated. One + One = One Half. The more you repeat an effect, the more the sum weakens.

    Good writers know what to put in their work. Great writers know what to hide.

    1. Great rule, Massimo. From what I’ve read, it’s most often a case of inexperience or not getting enough separation from a manuscript to have the perspective to see these things. We learn, we grow, we trust.

  2. Those are wonderful examples of what not to do. When I was a newbie I was caught in the flurry of emotion; thank goodness I learned my lesson. Thank you for your contribution, and good luck with your new release!

    1. Thank you, Aron. That flurry of emotion is a good thing for newbies. It keeps our enthusiasm up. Just like any craft, we learn discipline as we go.

  3. Good stuff, Laurie, and you know that it doesn’t matter what it is you are doing; subtlety comes with confidence and confidence comes from knowledge and experience. There really isn’t any short cut.

    Excellent post, Laurie.

  4. Great post, excellent reminder. And T.D.–you’re dead on about all that. Wish we could bottle confidence and sell it, but it has to be earned, step by painful step.

  5. Laurie, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear you learned to drive in DC. A savvy driver here doesn’t signal for a lane change, because then the other driver will know what you’re up to and pull up to close the gap. (Tell me again why I still live here….)

    Anyway, yes, great points. If you’re describing the body language, you don’t also need to name the emotion behind it. And yes, the nuances in writing come with experience.

  6. Great post — show don’t tell — a big hurdle for all writers, i think, at some point or the other in their writing trajectories. Thanks! I enjoyed it.

  7. But … but how will we know HOW angry Celia was? She could’ve just been a wee bit tiffed. She might’ve been enraged. She might have a medical condition. NOW we’ll never know. Poor Celia…


  8. The one thing I took away from my interview with Nino Ricci was ‘Don’t talk down to your readers”. By that he meant don’t spell out what can be inferred from the context and dialogue. (as in your first example) It’s a lesson I took to heart that has served me well.

  9. Yep–the best way to gain confidence in your ability to lure readers in without hitting them over the head and dragging the body into the closet…er…what was I saying?

    Oh yeah–give your work to other people to read. They’ll tell you if it works the way you want it to. Great post as usual, Miss Laurie!

  10. Great post. You are correct – it does come down to confidence and experience. We must learn to trust that our writing can convey the emotion we wish. We don’t need to deliver the message with a hammer.
    I have changed my driving habits since moving to Florida. This is a ‘stand your ground’ state, and concealed weapons are widespread. I let people pass.

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