In fiction, as on vacation, traveling light frees you to appreciate the scenery. Few of us leave town to exhibit an immense wardrobe, and probably even fewer read novels in order to study. Still, you won’t enjoy the trip if everything you brought is excessively flimsy or bulky, and many readers prefer novels offering a bit of heft. In both cases, the trick is packing thoughtfully, and taking responsibility for the contents of the suitcase.
Your novel’s length determines the size of that suitcase. Yet fiction’s subject matter determines how much unpacking someone must do. Who’s that someone? The novelist—not the reader.
In one sense, “unpacking” involves revelation of the individual components that comprise a complex concept. It makes sense that writers should provide this, so one wonders why more of them—in every genre—sometimes omit the explanation readers need in order to follow. Anxiety plays a role. What if “just saying it” will irritate, bore, or condescend?
The rest of the answer lies in what Steven Pinker calls “The Curse of Knowledge”:
It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualize a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details — even when writing for professional peers.—The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
Pinker blames unclear, densely packed passages on “chunking,” or storing details in clumps. Inside the writer’s head, this process works fine. But readers require “unchunking.” Without it, you offer A = B, A = C—without including that crucial middle step of B = C.
Pinker also identifies another opponent of clarity: functional fixity. As with structural rigidity, the issue here is your ability to rearrange details for the reader’s benefit. Or are you stuck with whatever pattern you first conceived? That may not be the ideal way to explain.
Ready to unpack? Try these techniques.
~ Imagine your audience.
It’s not you! It’s doesn’t matter what you know—only what your readers do.
~ Be concrete.
It’s a common myth that difficult ideas require abstractions. But the greatest art is clarity without oversimplification.
~ Provide breaks.
Divide your sentences. Start new paragraphs. Both matter more than you think.
~ Use the familiar.
People usually learn by attaching new facts and concepts to more commonplace ones. Break down those big chunks, perhaps comparing them with the well-known.
Tip: For a smooth fictional journey, keep disorganized, overflowing baggage out of sight.