In a recent student lesson, the writer was sharing the same information over and over in her short story. It was similar to saying as you’re getting your purse, “Honey, I’m going to the store” and when you put on your coat, “I’m going to the store, Honey.” And yet a third time when you opened the front door, “I’m off to the store now.” Most of us would get it the first time. And be annoyed by the repetition. Trust your reader to get what you write, too. Don’t annoy them.
Ruth E. Walker says, “Don’t poke your reader in the eye.” Yes, that’s how I felt reading that story.
Historical and fantasy author D.B. Jackson says, “Trusting your reader means, in essence, not slowing your narrative to explain things that don’t need explaining. It means trusting that you have done a good enough job showing your readers elements of plot, character, and setting that you don’t need to tell them as well.”
“More to the point, by explaining too much, by using those markers, I was denying my readers one of the great joys of reading: That feeling of epiphany that comes when we figure things out along with the characters we’re following.” – David B. Coe
Besides repetitive information, what other warning signs show we aren’t trusting our readers?
- The phrase “as if.”
Example: He sagged and braced himself on the table, as if he had no energy to stand up. The first part of the sentence shows; the second tells. (I realize, I’ve used this one!)
- Stating in dialogue and writing an action where both get the same information across.
Example: “I don’t have any energy to stand up.” I sagged and braced myself against the table.
- Overexplaining in dialogue. As you know Bob.
Example: “Stacey, I’m just so upset. How could my father leave us like that? It’s been two weeks and he says he’s not coming back. It’s not fair to me or my little brother. And to choose that bimbo over Mom? It’s just wrong.”
The main character’s best friend Stacey would already know the dad had left and why and that our main character is upset. The above is an info dump for the reader.
More natural: “How could he do this to us, Stacey?” I held back a sob. “It’s like we’re not his kids anymore.”
- Adverbs with “said” or “asked,” or explaining tone of voice.
Examples: “Run!” he said urgently. “I’m sorry,” she said with compassion. “Please don’t go,” she said in a pleading voice.
Each of those pieces of dialogue would stand on their own.
- Introducing or qualifying with words like “no doubt” and “obviously.”
Example: Ranger ran back to me and dropped the ball at my feet. “Good boy!” Obviously, he understood the game of fetch now.
Janice Hardy says, “It’s hard to know when it’s too much, but the tendency is to over explain, not under. When you find yourself thinking, ‘Will they get that? look back for the clues that will allow the reader to get it. If you find them, don’t worry about it. If you don’t, then add a few.”
So, where have you found yourself not trusting the reader? Please share in comments.