Monday, May 02, 2011

Trusting Your Reader

It’s difficult to surprise me. I have no idea why, but I tend to see things coming early on. It drives my kids nuts because they’re always trying to sneak up on me or surprise me with something, and 99% of the time I know what they’re going to do well in advance. When they do surprise me, though, it’s like they’ve been rewarded with a triple decker sundae, and they ride that high for the rest of the day. It’s very amusing. :)

I’m the same way with stories. Occasionally, I come across a story that I can’t come close to predicting, or even guessing at the outcome, and that’s my triple decker sundae. :) I love it when that happens. It’s such a thrilling surge of excitement and I can never stop reading. Most of the time, though, I can see where a story is going very early on. It doesn’t really bother me, because that’s usually the natural path the story needs to take, and I can still find plenty of enjoyment in that.

There are a few times that it does bother me, though, and the result is usually a desire to throw the book across the room. Seriously, it feels like fingernails on a chalkboard. Why? Simple. The early clues were painfully obvious and often repeated.

Your average reader isn’t stupid. Neither are reluctant readers. Laying down a huge clue in the beginning and then pointing to it with big flashing lights certainly sends the reader a message, but probably not the one you want. It says this: “See? Do you see this clue? Do you see how I’m connecting point A to point B? Look how clever I am!” The reader does not care how clever you are. The reader only cares about the story, and obvious clues do not impress us.

So, what does impress a reader? Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can say what impresses me. And that is tiny, subtle clues that I miss the first time around. I want to miss the clues early on, and I get really excited when I do. Know why? Because it makes the second reading SO MUCH BETTER. It’s like getting two for the price of one.

Those tiny clues don’t go over my head. They go into my subconscious and allow me to fully enjoy the climax and resolution the first time through the story. Plus, they add another layer of coolness the second time. That’s when I say, all on my own, “This author is so clever! I want to read more of his/her books.”

The first step in creating that kind of reaction is this: Trust Your Reader.

What does that mean? Well, let’s look at the definition of trust.
Trust: –noun on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing; confidence.
2.confident expectation of something; hope.

In other words, it’s safe to assume/hope/believe that your reader will understand what you’re trying to say without any kind of explanation (quite frankly, explanations inadvertently insult our intelligence...not that I have an opinion on the matter...). Your reader will get it. If not right away, then eventually. Trust me. :)

Here are a few tips to keep that level of trust high:

  1. Don’t go overboard. Big clues don’t do anything except give away the ending too soon. That defeats the whole purpose of reading a book. Also, don’t repeat yourself. The reader will get it the first time, even if the clue is small. If he doesn’t, it’s still not a big deal because he will definitely get it the second time, and it will raise his enjoyment level of the second reading. Bonus: he will think you’re super clever.
  2. Rely on character’s actions (both obvious and subtle) rather than loading the reader down with information. The reader doesn’t need to know everything at once, and we certainly don’t need to be told what’s happening. We can see the characters for ourselves, and, if they’re vivid enough, we’ll be able to glean what’s really happening.
  3. Don’t connect the dots for the reader—let him do it himself, either the first time or the second. For example, I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak has a great twist at the end, but the author then connects all the dots for the reader by explaining the how and why of the entire story. For me, that’s very off-putting. I got it the first time, thankyouverymuch.
  4. Have faith in yourself, and don’t try so hard. In order to trust in your reader, you must also trust that you know what you’re doing. It doesn’t mean you’ll get it right the first time, and you may flail along the way, but it will get you on the right track. Critique partners are key here, and will help you find a good balance.
So, how do you plant clues that will keep your reader hanging on your every word? That's next week's topic. :) Until then, I challenge you to think on this:

As a reader, what impresses you when you’re reading a book?
As a writer, how much do you trust your reader?


Kelly Hashway said...

I totally agree. I love subtle clues. Ones you miss until you get to the end and then say "Oh yeah!".

Jessie Harrell said...

Trusting my reader was a lesson one very generous CP taught me early on. Like you said, your CPs will let you know if something in your brain isn't translating onto paper. Otherwise, I just have to believe that my (hopefully soon-to-be) readers are right there with me.

Tatum Flynn said...

Very interesting post. I think this is a spot in which beta readers or CPs are invaluable, because when *you* know the secrets and twists of your book, it can be hard to judge whether you've given too few or too many clues leading up to the big reveal.

So having someone say 'I never guessed the aunt was secretly the killer, brilliant!' or 'Wait, what, the aunt is the killer? That totally came out of the blue and I think it's dumb.' is beyond helpful.

Tabitha said...

Kelly - subtle clues can sometimes be the difference between a good book and an amazing one. :)

Jessie - that's great you had such a generous crit partner! I am eternally grateful to mine. :)

Girl Friday - it sure is. If you can't get your own objectivity, then we need to use someone else's. :)

Catherine Stine said...

Yes, what works are subtle clues dropped only on a need-to-know basis, with a few red herrings in there too!

Sherri said...

Great post! I love getting to the end and saying, "ahh-ha!"

Ref: need to know basis
Love that idea!

Court Ellyn said...

Wonderful advice to keep in mind during revisions.


brenda said...

Excellent post, and echo the above comments. As a reader, I am love the ah-ha moment, the subtle clues. And as a writer, yes it’s a skill that is learned as we writer our stories or novels. I was never a fan of knowing the secret to the story up front, followed by backfill. I like being surprised. Keeps me engaged.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

The push-pull of subtle-obvious is so tough. If you're too subtle, some readers will demand more, or simply walk away ("Too confusing!") - and then there's those that will throw the book if it's too obvious. I think is a most delicate skill. :)

Natalie Aguirre said...

This is so true. I love the points that you suggest watching for.

I'd love to know some books that you think did it right.

PK HREZO said...

I love planting clues during the first draft, but I find I can only do this by knowing the story beforehand. That's why i have extensive outlines and character sketches if my story involves a twist.

Tabitha said...

Catherine - yes! Red herrings are a must. I love it when a story can keep me guessing. :)

Sherri - thanks! And I so agree--the need-to-know strategy is very effective. :)

Court Ellyn - thanks! :)

Brenda - I prefer to be surprised, too. It makes the story so much more compelling and engaging. It's what I strive for in the stories I write. :)

Tabitha said...

Susan - it sure is a most delicate skill! And it's not something one can learn overnight. It takes lots of practice and feedback from fellow writing professionals. I'd be lost without my crit partners. :)

Natalie - thanks! I will think on some books that I found very effective in clue-dropping, and will add them to the post either today or tomorrow. Great idea!

PK - exactly! That's something I'm going to discuss in next week's post. If you don't know your story, then you can't possibly plant clues (because you have no idea what's going to happen). Once you know your story, then you can insert little clues here and there that tie into your resolution.

Logan E. Turner said...

I've always considered myself like a base line tester for clues. I NEVER get the clues. We're opposites. :) I think that's why I love the Dan Brown genre - here's a clue, and now I'm going to walk you through how I decipher it, and then something scary happens and we zoom off to the next totally obvious clue. Rinse. Repeat.

That dense brain of mine doesn't keep me from enjoying more complex mysteries, though. If I wasn't so lazy, I'd go back and try and figure it out, but usually the important thing is the journey and the resolution, so as long as I'm having a good time getting there and it's explained adequately in the end, I'm good. :)