• Alyssa Rogan

What It Means to Trust Your Readers

"You don't trust your reader."

If you've gotten this comment from a reader or fellow writer, there's a chance you may have squinted and scratched your head. What does that even mean? You might've asked yourself. How could I distrust my reader? How do I edit this so that I do trust my reader?

Well, dear friend, here's how.

When you get feedback about not trusting your reader, what it really means is that you're explaining too much. You're showing instead of telling. You're inadvertently communicating to your readers that they won't pick up on any of the emotional cues or plot clues unless you spell it out for them. You don't trust their skills of deduction, their intuition, or their common sense.

When you think about it that way, distrusting your reader can come across as quite insulting to them, even if you don't mean it that way. Beyond assuming too little about your reader, you also make for a boring reading experience when you stop to explain exactly how a character is feeling and why they feel that way. Just let readers experience the story. Don't let your writing get in the way.

Saying all of this is simple enough, but let me give you a few concrete examples so you know what I'm talking about. Today's post is actually inspired by one of the books I'm reading right now--a contemporary YA called Time of Our Lives by Austin Siegmund-Broka and Emily Wibberley. This book has potential, but it's weighed down by backstory and overexplaining. Let me show you an excerpt:

"Better than my perfect grades?" I snap back. While I do have an exceptional memory--good enough to ace every one of Mrs. Karis's infamous European History exams and never forget friends' birthdays--Tía only thinks it's useful when it helps the family. But I catch Tía giving me a stern look and regret my sarcasm. "Of course, Tía," I amend, looking imploringly at my mom, hoping she'll jump in and save me.
She doesn't, her expression distant and distracted. It's a familiar response. I'm decently close with my mom, close enough to have semi-regular Disney movie nights just us two. But my mother divides her time and focus evenly among her six kids. My dad, on the other hand, plays favorites, to my obvious benefit. (p. 20-21)

Okay, let's go over what we learned about our protagonist in this section: she has a crazy good memory, she's sarcastic, she has a decent but somewhat impersonal relationship with her mom, and she's one of her dad's favorites. See what I mean when I say the authors are explaining too much? If she's smart, I want to see it, not hear about it. If her dad picks favorites, I want to see it, not hear about it. If her mom divides her time evenly among her six kids, I want to see it, not hear about it. All of these family dynamics could have been shown over the course of a few chapters, rather than dumped in two paragraphs.

You may be asking, but won't explaining the family dynamic be more convenient than showing it? In the short run, the answer is yes. You can cover more ground by just throwing in a couple of paragraphs about how the family operates, but it's not as interesting to read. Imagine being told everything, and gleaning nothing for yourself. There's nothing open for interpretation here. It's cut and dry and distant.

In the long run, you're actually hindering yourself. You'll get in the habit of stopping to explain everything, and this is annoying for readers. They just want to watch what happens, not sit there and remember the twelve new details about each character you've taken one page to describe. Instead, scatter details along the way in an organic manner. It'll be easier for readers to remember and offer a bit of intrigue if you introduce said detail without explaining it. They have to figure out for themselves why it's important. They'll love this because it means you've entrusted them with figuring it out.

Unfortunately, the authors of this book do not trust their readers (this is how I feel, at least, but I can't speak for everyone who's read this book). Despite all the biographical information about these characters, nothing much has happened by way of plot. It makes the pacing feel slow, and I'm not really connecting with the characters, even though I'm ninety pages in.

Now, I don't mean to crap all over this book while I sit here and pretend like I'm never guilty of explaining too much. In fact, it was a reoccurring problem I found while reading through my first draft. I constantly found myself highlighting little snippets and adding notes like, show this!! or too much explaining!!

The example above describes how writers often overexplain backstory or personality traits. However, it's also possible to tell rather than show emotion. You're explaining emotion anytime you identify the emotion itself. Here's an example:

Hiding his giddiness, he replied as steadily as his voice would allow, “Yup, that’s me.”

I probably could have found a better way to insinuate that this character was giddy. Maybe he's smirking or squirming or blushing. Whenever you're tempted to identify the emotion a character is feeling, ask yourself how you know people are angry or sad or giddy without them outright telling you so. The cool thing is that it can be different for every character. Every character can express emotion differently, with differing degrees of drama or stoicism.

Telling too much seemed to be more of a problem in the first quarter of the manuscript. Obviously, this is the part of the book with the most set-up, but I also kept in mind that it was the first draft. First drafts are very forgiving, but they're also your opportunity to tell the story to yourself. Maybe you don't know yet what the character dynamics are, or what the emotional makeup of your characters is. That's okay. You'll have your chance to sort things out in revision.

I should also add that there are no fast and hard rules for when you should and shouldn't tell. If you tell every single thing, you'll have a very, very long book on your hands. So don't do that. Use your discretion, use your intuition, ask your writer friends for their opinion. Most important of all, trust your readers

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