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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4 Comments on “The power of smart”

  1. Dani Says:

    Interesting topic, Barbara.

    But I think (aside from the real fact that over-explaining is a genuine novice writer problem), there’s sometimes a bit more going on.

    I personally have a high tolerance for ambiguity in what I read. J. G. Ballard and Gene Wolfe write ambiguous stuff, and I adore their works. Knotty stuff? Bring it on!

    On the other hand, a Terry Brocks work once drove me utterly mad, since he insisted on filling in the “back stories” of every minor character in his book. “Who cares? Get on with the story already!” I ranted.

    But a lot of readers don’t want ambiguity in what they read. They LIKE knowing the back stories and the minutia. They want it spelled out. (Who sells more? Terry Brooks, or Gene Wolfe? I rest my case).

    I never realized this until a friend of mine agreed to read my last work, a dark far future fantasy (you have it somewhere in your slush, ahem). And that’s an “ambiguous” story if there ever was one.

    My friend came back with “did you mean this” and “you should explain this” in spades. We talked, and he had actually figured out what I meant CORRECTLY in every case. He just wasn’t COMFORTABLE with not having his deductions confirmed. He had to KNOW.

    Half way through the test read, we both gave up in frustration. His parting comment was “the story’s unhinged!” (But that was a different failure of imagination on his part).

    So it comes back to the old truism: there may be a reader for every story (somewhere in the universe).

    Or, in this case, an editor.

    • I think you’ve hit it: there is a reader for every story. Beyond the genuine-novice problem, it does become an issue of taste; and those are legion. Will over-explaining or under-explaining turn more readers off? I’ve never studied the issue; to tell you the truth I don’t much care. I believe that as writers we must write for our imaginary ideal audience, those readers who will love what we need our art to be, and hope others are sufficiently compelled by our work to enjoy it too. Because it is simply impossible to please everyone, and it diminishes any author’s own particular art to try.

      In fact I just had a long conversation with my own editor about this topic this week, prompted by my love of exercising punctuation and sentence structure beyond pedestrian limits. “I only want the readers who will love my semicolons!” I said finally, and he just laughed and agreed not to try to take all of mine away.

      There’s a reason why I live on the small press side of the street. šŸ™‚

  2. Dani Says:

    And this, of course, points to another gem of experience… pick suitable test readers. Don’t choose a fan of Tolkien style elves and dwarves and long-bearded magicians to read your dark far future speculative fiction. Or a romance fan to read your bleeding edge cyberpunk. Etc.

    Alas, test readers are hard to get. We must take pot luck. That’s the reason my sister is described as a Doberman (or Rottweiler, I forget which) in the “Acknowledgements” of my latest work… šŸ™‚

    • LOL, the Rottweiler. Mercury Retrograde author (and one of my beta readers, bless her) Leona Wisoker talks about the “Mean Reader”, the one who doesn’t much like what you’re doing and has to be bribed to read for you–and the value of the notes you’ll get from such a reader. I spent enough years as the only SFF writer in writers’ groups to be entirely Over That, but each of us has our own process.

      It’s true that we must take what we can get in beta readers, but there are useful places to find them: notably on-line writers’ groups dedicated to particular genres. Critters ( has served many SFF writers, and there are several other well-respected ones out there. Romance writers can sign up for similar groups, many of which are hosted by the RWA. Ironically, the farther you get in the business, the better critique partners and early-readers you have access to, because you get to meet other pros, and a high percentage of them belong to groups, most of which are off the radar.

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