Sunday, January 8, 2017

Getting to Know What Readers Know—or Don’t

Unless you enjoy clairvoyance along with creativity, you’ll never be certain what readers find baffling or belaboring. But you can develop significant skill at approximating, and the better your guesswork becomes, then the likelier you are to avoid dispensing too much or little. 

If readers have chosen your novel, don’t they want to hear everything you have to say? Of course not. 
Here’s the sort of thing they want you to omit.

“x.” What they’ve already heard.

Never be less aware of repetition than your readers.When writers revise over and over, as we definitely need to do, we sometimes forget what’s been established. This is especially treacherous when informing other characters about preceding events. Assume your readers are smart and have good memories. This encourages you to replace repetition with swift summary.

“x” Abstract description of emotions.

You “tell” every time you say, “Esmerelda was angry,” or “Romanov was sad.” Novelists frequently adopt such wording when transitioning from a general overview to a specific example. But that solves one problem by introducing another. Engage readers with body language and literal or symbolic imagery.

“x” Tedious logistics.

It’s charming that you can pinpoint the distance between the village where Prudence lives and the park where she makes love with Oscar in the bushes. Still, the lovemaking intrigues readers, not the park being 7.4 miles northwest of town, how long it takes to bike there, or even the exact number of hills Oscar must surmount to reach his beloved.

“x” Painful didactics.

Just because you know all about shipbuilding in ancient Greece, Caillebotte’s palette, or every detail about America’s greatest quarterback, don’t assume that readers also want to know. Never bury the plot or lose your voice. Instead? Integrate facts into the story itself, or use them as a delaying tactic to escalate suspense. Keep the emphasis on the fiction—not the “non.” 

Of course you must also guess what readers do want. That’s qualities like these:

~ Clarity.

Readers want to feel grounded. Who is this guy? When did the revelers leave the house? Where are we, and how did we get there?

~ Causality.

What induced this moment? Reveal motive not only through scene goals, pressure points, and character arc, but at the level of the sentence with words like “while” and “but.”  

~ Mystery. 

Manipulate details so that readers can frequently infer without ever feeling confused. That’s the not-so-secret secret to what readers want to know.

Tip: Successful fiction masters the delicate balance between inference and explanation.

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