The power of smart
One of the most common mistakes I see in the work of developing writers is over-explaining. They do it in their own work; in critique groups they exhort one another to do it. Every mystery or odd character behavior not instantly explained is treated as a flaw.
This is wrong.
Yes, I said it, and as most of you know I make few black-and-white pronouncements. But this is a thing of which I’m absolutely certain.
Readers want to understand, but they don’t want you to *explain*. They want to figure things out for themselves: pursue the mysteries, unravel them thread by thread. Getting the right answer makes them feel smart; mysteries they understand but haven’t yet solved gives them things to talk about with friends who are reading the same book. There’s a reason why, despite its legion of flaws, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is so very popular: people are captivated by the mysteries within. They want to unravel them.
Letting your readers work for their answers is not the same thing as being incomprehensible. Oddly enough, one of the great litmus tests in this regard, one of the most persuasive signs you’re doing it right, is nagging from critique partners who don’t know better: complaints that run something like “I really think you should take some time to explain [insert truth here].”
[insert truth here]. That’s your clue: your critique partner just figured it out for herself. She actually didn’t need you to explain. If with a little bit of mental effort, readers can figure things out for themselves, they don’t need you to explain more. They just need clues and time. Trust me; they’ll love you for making them feel smart.
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