Sunday, June 7, 2009

Trusting the Reader

I have spent a great deal of time working with aspiring novelists as of late, and doing a large number of critiques. As I mentioned in earlier posts, there are patterns. Those following the path of writing fiction appear to become lost in many of the same places. Having wandered aimlessly myself, I am familiar with most all of these traps. Some are obvious, like knowing that a story should consist of a beginning, middle and end; that a book should have a setting, characters and a plot. Others are not as blatant. You might not be familiar with them unless you’ve studied creative fiction, or hung out with writers, concepts like, “showing” instead of “telling,” or the pitfalls of a shifting point of view. Then there is what I consider the more advanced aspects of writing, the extra stuff like foreshadowing and symbols, but the one technique in writing that I rarely hear anyone speak of is “trusting the reader.”

Trusting the reader comes in many different forms and levels, but it can make the difference between a story that is lethargic, and one that comes right off the page at you. Simply put, trusting the reader makes reading a book interactive. The reader stops being a passive witness to events and becomes an active part of the story. While this sounds great, it is extremely dangerous if done incorrectly.

What is trusting the reader? It means that as an author you don’t handhold your audience, you don’t explain what you want them to understand. Instead, you trust that they will grasp your meaning. The danger being—they might not.

Trusting the Reader comes in different forms. It can be applied at the sentence and paragraph level, where an author might provide a detailed description of a room, “empty bottles littered the floor, dirty clothes lay on door handles or piling in corners…” and in doing so provide the graphic scene of a messy room. All too often writers then follow this with the paragraph concluding sentence, “The room was a mess.” This sentence is put there as insurance. The author doesn’t want you to miss the point, but they know if they just came out and said, “the room was a mess.” Their creative writing instructor would slap them for “telling” instead of “showing.” So now they show and tell—just to be safe.

As with most things however, taking risks offers the greatest rewards, so long as you don’t go crazy. If you have adequately described a scene, you don’t have to explain it afterwards. The reader will get it and they won’t feel insulted knowing that the author did not think they would. Still this is the easy stuff. It is when you take the same idea to the character and plot level that things get dicey.

Applying the idea of trusting the reader to a plot runs a huge risk. If the reader doesn’t get the fact that the room is dirty, it isn’t a huge deal, but if you lose a major plot point, the whole story might collapse. On the other hand, if you create a gap in the story and provide no bridge for the reader to walk across so that they have to make a leap of understanding to figure out what is happening, then they will feel included in the story. They will feel clever at having figured the secret out and the story will become something they are “doing” rather than merely “reading.” Make the gap too wide and well…splat.

In the novel “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris provides a simple example of this technique where he speaks of a young boy thinking of all the things he did that he might be in trouble for and one of those items listed is: “…altering the word hit on a list of rules posted on the gymnasium door…” Mr. Sedaris never says how he altered it. He leaves this for the reader to figure out. The result is like a perfectly delivered punch line. There is a pause, a moment of confusion and then it dawns on the reader and that brief moment of hesitancy punches the joke delivering it with tremendous power that causes the idea to pop off the page far more than if he just explained it. Still if you don’t get the joke, it won’t ruin the book. For that you have to go higher still.

In Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” he takes trusting the reader to soaring heights when crucial parts of the story’s plot are hinged on the assumption that the reader will guess correctly about certain aspects that are merely hinted at. Mr. Hosseini describes a common aspect of a character near the beginning of the novel in a specific manner, then much later in the novel he describes another character using the exact same descriptive element, but never identifies the individual. He is trusting that the reader will remember the earlier reference and understand it is the same person. Creating such a leap of faith is gutsy for a writer, but the effect, when it works, is fantastic. When I connected the dots, I was thrilled like figuring out a whodunit before the sleuth explained the murder. And this was only one small part of a well constructed, reader-trusting story that puts the reader to work and makes them feel useful.

A related aspect to this same idea is “holding-back.” As a novelist with a great story to tell, it is hard to stop yourself from blurting everything out right away. There is so much you want to explain, and writers can be very impatient feeling that the reader won’t truly enjoy the story until they learn this crucial plot twist. Again, it is important to trust that the reader will stay with you, and if an author does the job right, the reader will be just as impatient to discover the answers, as the author is to reveal them.

This has been an issue with my own books—more so perhaps because I am writing a series of novels that is in many ways one long story. So much is unexplained and so much is intentionally misdirecting that as the author it can be frustrating to hear negative comments that are merely the result of false assumptions. It is like playing a practical joke on someone, hearing them complain, but not being able yet to reveal the joke.

Being patient, holding back, and having faith that readers will make the leaps across chasms and be happier for the exercise, is scary, but just as the reader relies on writers not to strand them with a nonsensical story, the writer must also have the courage to trust the reader.