Photo by Jon Yates (flickr)
I have a secret to share with you–a big one. One that will inform and change your writing from the word-choice level to the story arc level. A secret that the greatest authors hold dear: Margaret Atwood, J. K. Rowling, Kurt Vonnegut.
As writers, we live inside the world we’ve made. We know it inside and out. When I write fantasy, I map everything: History. Geography. Culture. Famous figures. Politics. Monsters. Mountains. Every character has been born, lived, suffered, loved, and changed before the story even begins. They have an entire manuscript’s worth of back stories.
And it’s hard, as a writer–when we’ve spent so much time making and shaping our world and our heroes–to hold it back. To keep all that colorful, beautiful, complicated world under a thumb while we write, only doling out what’s necessary. Because it’s so near and dear to us! Shouldn’t our readers also know what we know? Isn’t that the point of writing–to explore an idea, to breathe life into it through its inky mouth, to make our readers understand what we’ve known all along?
So, here’s the secret:
They don’t. And no, it’s not the point.
They care, of course they do; some more than others. (I had an hour-long conversation with someone once about the entire Targaryen bloodline. Especially if you write fantasy, you will have some readers like this–but they are not a majority by a long shot.)
But the less we tell them, the better. Sounds crazy, right? I mean, don’t we want them to feel encompassed by our world–wrapped up in it like their favorite baby blanket? Well, yes. But pouring out every detail of your world, page after page, won’t do the trick. The key is to only give readers the bare minimum.
I ask myself these questions:
1. What is the absolute minimum the reader needs to know to understand what’s happening now? Provide it. Paint a minimalist painting. Your reader is:
(Some more than others, obviously, but as writers, we have a habit of giving readers far less credit than they deserve. Any blank spots in your description of that hideous beast, and I guarantee the image your reader conjures up will far surpass any verbal paint strokes you put on the page.)
2. Are there certain things they don’t need to know right now? It’s perfectly acceptable (even encouraged) for readers to have a few, specific questions as they read.
This specificity thing is key: the reader needs to know what it is that they don’t know. (Okay, now I sound like a crazy person. Bear with me.)
For example: Two characters (A and B) are discussing a third character (C). We don’t know much about this third character. I’m going to let my two bigmouths give the reader a few important details: A and B are friends; C is an enemy. A, B, and C all go to school together. But we don’t know what C did to piss off A and B–we know something happened, and the fall-out is big, but because A and B were both present when it all went down, they’re not going to tell the reader (because, obviously, they were both there).
And that’s all right! It’s good for the reader to have a couple of questions, as long as they know what question they’re asking, and that the question is eventually answered. Leaving out too many details leads to confusion–the reader feels like he’s stumbling around in the dark, because there are so many un-filled gaps. Give enough detail to paint a picture, but leave a hole to keep the reader interested and turning the pages. (Imagine a 20-dollar bill on a fishing line.)
3. Is there anything obvious about the scene that can be skipped over or avoided? We’ve talked a lot about the bigger picture, but I want to get into the nitty-gritty, word level. Read the following (made up) quote:
She danced just out of his reach, holding his phone at arm’s length like it smelled bad, and waved it around. “Cory’s got a girlfriend,” she teased. “Cory’s got a girlfriend and they’re in love!”
“Cory’s got a girlfriend. Cory’s got a girlfriend and they’re in love!” This is about as “teasing” as dialogue can get. To go on and say, “she teased,” is not only unnecessary (here’s a whole post about staying clear of overly-creative dialogue tags)–but it can even make your reader feel condescended. Obviously she is teasing him. The prose starts to sound like a broken record. Let your dialogue speak for itself.
So what’s the big secret? Readers want to be trusted. Readers want to imagine, to fill in the gaps themselves. Doesn’t it feel good when your boss or your friend leaves a task completely up to you? “I trust you to do this right.” Yeah! I’m competent! And my boss/friend/parent acknowledges that I’m competent. And your own creative spark takes off and blooms and you get to feel personal ownership for the result.
Your readers are competent, too; they want to become a part of the story themselves. Trust them! Believe in them! Let their imaginations do the heavy lifting. Give them more credit than your instinct suggests. And, frankly, trust yourself. Trust your own dialogue and description and story structure to let in the right details–the minimum amount a reader needs to keep going. They’ll fill in the blanks. And they’ll feel good about it.
Because, again: as fantastic as Margaret Atwood/Kurt Vonnegut/J. K. Rowling are, the things they don’t say are sometimes as powerful as the things they do. Words are nothing compared to the power of an imagination–they’re just the tools to unlocking it.