Trusting Your Reader
“What writing is…telepathy, of course. All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.” ~Stephen King
I have trust issues. I can admit it. There are few people in this world I trust and when I do, it’s been hard-won, though unknowingly, by the people who’ve earned it. But when I sit down to work on my novel, I have to take a giant leap of faith and trust The Reader. (Whether or not I’ll even have readers to trust is another, and different, leap of faith for another post!)
So what do I mean? I have to believe the reader can see in their mind what’s going on in mine. I can’t send them a Youtube clip of my vision, email them a photograph, or sketch them a drawing. As deep as my love for the parenthetical runs (and it’s deep as the Marianas Trench, I’m afraid) I can’t write my book in explanatory asides. I have to believe that the magic of writing is happening. That just as Stephen King describes it, my writing is creating a very real form of telepathy between me and my reader.
Why is it important to trust my reader to be telepathic, then? Because if I don’t, I’m going to write some boring, long-ass descriptions of settings, characters, and action in my book. And the irony is that when writers lapse into these long descriptions, the reader’s eyes gloss over like the students in Ferris Bueller’s Economics class and the telepathic connection is lost quicker than cell-phone reception in Wyoming’s southeastern corner. (Or was that only my provider?)
Stephen King gives an excellent example of how writer/reader telepathy occurs in his book, On Writing. It’s such an exciting idea, I’m going to give it a go here myself.
First of all, this is an incredibly visual process for me. Movies of books play on the screen inside my mind. But before I can press “play” on this mind-movie, the writer has to set the scene for me. And that part happens in a black, empty void whenever I crack open a new story. Each word from the writer illuminates a new corner of the scene, like a flashlight painting shapes into the darkness. Too much detail and it’s like somebody hit the floodlights. I’m overloaded and the end result is I can’t see a thing.
So let’s try it:
The girl opened the door and walked inside the school.
Is that enough? I bet you pictured a girl, but how old? If you’re anything like me, you took a stab at it. You might be picturing a kid going into an elementary school. I’ll fix that:
The girl opened the door and walked inside the high school.
Okay, high school. Generic enough I don’t need to give a lot of detail. Should I describe it then? Is it important to my story to tell you that it’s made of brick? Two-storey or one-storey (this might be important, but here, it’s not) Is it an old school or a new school? Who cares! Most all of us have not only seen a high school, we’ve been in one and we know it intimately. I’m not going to waste precious words painting a picture you already know pretty well.
So what should I use my words on?
The girl pushed her electric blue hair out of her eyes, glanced over her shoulder, and slipped into the dark, deserted high school.
Okay, now you’re getting not just a picture, but a movie. My telepathy is doing double-duty here. You’re not only seeing the scene in your mind, you’re drawing assumptions. This is a kid with dyed hair (trouble maker? Or I, the writer, want you to think possible trouble maker) and she’s slipping into a school when it’s maybe not open and at night. Sounds like she’s breaking into a school!
Now I might need you to make that fast assumption so I don’t have to spell it out for you. It saves me words and makes you, clever reader, feel–well, clever.
Or I might want to take your assumption and turn it on its head. Make you feel bad about stereotyping people. She’s actually at the school to tutor some boy who’s embarrassed about needing help.
Regardless, I had to trust the reader to see and assume what I thought they would based on what was in my mind. I sent you that movie clip…with my mind. (I hope you heard that last bit in a dramatic, whisper-echo voice)
How many times have you been reading a book without enough of that visual painting going on and you had to create the world out of that void for yourself? And you wished the author had given you their world, but hey, you’re going along for the ride and then Bam! they suddenly decide to cough up a detail and it made your entire world crumble because it messed everything up? That makes me so sad. I wasn’t having a telepathic moment with my author. I was having a visual monologue in my head.
I don’t ever want to do that to my readers.
Instead, I strive to do this. Write carefully. Use my words wisely. (Avoid adverbs and parentheses) Trust my reader will make that telepathic connection when I use just the right and just the right amount of description.
Now that’s book magic.