One of the more common things I see new writers do is to try telling the reader every single detail about a scene or a character or a theme. They think the reader “won’t get it” if they don’t include all that information. This implies the reader isn’t clever enough to understand your brilliance, so you have to insert yourself into the story and walk them through it. But readers don’t like this.
I'm not talking about Kurt Vonnegut inserting himself as the creator in a story to make some metafictional point. That is something different. What this is about is the belief that unless you explain things to your reader in great detail, they won't recognize your brilliance.
I don’t think writers intentionally do this, but I know there are times when we all want to show readers how brilliant our prose is, or how sharp our plotting is. Sometimes, we can’t help ourselves.
Why not trusting your reader is problematic
The problem with not trusting the reader is two-fold: first, it insults them. As readers, we love to figure things out, to make our own connections, to visualize what the characters look like and so on. One of the reasons why mysteries are so popular is because the reader gets to figure out who dunnit too. By telling readers too much, writers take that level of engagement away from them.
Second, it breaks the flow of the story. Readers know when you’re inserting yourself into the prose to teach and preach. And if the flow of reading is broken, your reader engagement is lost. When readers become disengaged, they put the book down and may never pick it up again.
How to identify when you’re not trusting the reader
Sometimes it’s difficult to notice when you, as a writer, aren’t trusting the reader. It’s like everything else with our stories: we become attached to them, and blind to the errors we’ve made. So the best thing to do is to make sure others read your story. If they’re honest and sincere, they will tell you when they recognize a certain preachiness in the writing.
Whenever the narrator or a character goes over the top explaining something, you know you’re not trusting the reader. As a writer, you may think you’re doing the reader a favour by telling them how all the dots join up, but readers don’t like this. We like to figure things out on our own.
So, if you find your explaining too much or getting preachy and teachy, that’s when you should have a close look at your prose and start cutting words out.
The story is never finished until it’s read
Lastly, trying to tell or explain to the reader everything that’s going on is impossible. As a writer, you may have a certain idea in your head about what’s going on, but every reader will pick up something a little different that you never thought of. It’s because each reader brings their own personal and unique experience to the story when they read it. They create the theatre of the mind based on places they’ve been, and people they know. In fact, the reader completes the story you began writing.
Because of this, it’s impossible for a writer to portray exactly everything they want in a story. It’s why describing someone as a “tall, brown-eyed woman with shoulder-length hair” is far more effective than describing every single detail about what she looks like and what she’s wearing.
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