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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

When Less Is More: Trusting Your Reader

Over the past few weeks, I've been reworking a story I 'completed' several years ago.  At that time, I considered it the best writing I'd ever done.  Sadly, at that time, it probably was.  Let's just say 'editing' is too mild a term for what the story needs.  Words like 'decimation,' 'reconstructive surgery,' and 'pulmonary resuscitation' come to mind.  

While ruthlessly annihilating waste-of-space sentences, trimming repetitive paragraphs, and chopping bulky scenes, I've noticed a common theme.  In almost every case, the necessary eliminations have come about because I failed to trust my reader.

What does it mean to trust your reader, and how can you tell when you aren't doing it?  Trust is having faith that your reader will be intelligent enough to fill in the blanks on her own.  Not trusting is giving into the temptation to explain.

I'm an educator, so it's in my personality to explain.  Sometimes I explain the same thing twice, which is to say I repeat a similar thing in two different ways.  (Since the point of this post is trusting your reader, I'll assume you've already spotted the lame attempt at humor in the preceding sentences.)

On a sentence level, check your writing to see if you do anything like this:

"Get out!  Get out NOW!" she shouted, her face burning red with anger.

One could reasonably argue that your average reader knows your character is shouting without being reminded of it in the sentence tag.  But does the reader even need to know the protagonist's face is "burning red with anger'?  Sometimes the most unnecessary words are the hardest ones for an author to let go.

Here's where confession time begins.  I don't just explain with sentences.  Sometimes I explain in entire paragraphs.  When I'm really on a roll, I use an entire scene!  In the aforementioned manuscript, I repeatedly resorted to inner monologue to sneakily force my protagonists to explain the romantic feelings they were experiencing.  Shameless of me, I know, and any savvy reader will see right through it.  If a little dialogue, a furtive glance, and a warm blush aren't enough to get the point across, it's time for me to reassess my 'show don't tell' techniques.

Almost as bad as the last example was an entire scene (Now deleted!) created to showcase a few of my favorite research 'gems.'  Several pages existed so I could slip in something about the 'chape' of a sword's scabbard and several more came into being so I could explain how the natural oil in the scabbard's wool lining protected the hero's sword from rust and corrosion.  (There!  I finally found a way to use it!  I feel much better now.)

Your reader is intelligent.  He proved that by learning to read.  So take a few risks.  Trust that he'll get the point.  And if you still have lingering doubts about people 'getting it,' you might consider looking for a trustworthy beta reader.