Recently, while reading through a wonderful short story written by a Master’s student with whom I’m working, I found myself writing a comment in the page margin that rang all too familiar. The student had just had one of her characters do something during a heated conversation — I believe he was leaning forward, his hands braced on the table in front of him. It was a small gesture, but very effective in conveying his stance and his emotions. It reinforced his dialogue perfectly. But my student not only described the gesture, she also explained it, saying something along the lines of “He leaned toward her, as if to give added weight to his words.” [Her description of the gesture itself was more detailed and more elegant, but that was the gist of the gesture and her explanation.]
The comment I wrote on her story basically said this: “You do such a great job of using his posture and his words to convey the tension. You don’t need the explanation. Trust your reader.”
Trust your reader. It was something that my editor said to me again and again early in my career, as I struggled to find the balance between telling my readers too much and telling them too little. And, if I’m honest with you and with myself, I have to add that it’s something my editor still has to tell me at least once or twice with each new manuscript.
Trusting your reader means, in essence, not slowing your narrative to explain things that don’t need explaining. It means trusting that you have done a good enough job showing your readers elements of plot, character, and setting that you don’t need to tell them as well.
Here’s an example from an early draft of Thieftaker in which I use my own “as if” phrase to make a point that I’ve already made: “Greenleaf watched Sephira, looking almost embarrassed, and she glared back at him, as if reprimanding one of her men.” The final version reads simply, “Greenleaf watched Sephira, looking almost embarrassed, and she glared back at him.” The phrase “as if reprimanding one of her men” is totally unnecessary to the success of the sentence. The shorter version conveys all that it needs to, in fewer words. I just need to trust that my readers will get it.
That, of course, is a very small example. Trusting one’s reader can mean cutting not just a few words, but an entire paragraph or more. It can mean deleting a data dump that explains elements of background that are already clear enough. It can mean skipping a long exploration of a character’s emotional state because her emotions became pretty clear when she threw her glass against the wall. As my editor put it to me many years ago, in reference to one book or another, “This is a good book. It has lots of twists and turns. It’s complex. But it’s not rocket science. Trust your readers. They will get it without all the explanations.”
And that, of course, is the key. Saying “trust your readers” is actually just another way of saying “trust yourself, trust your book.” It’s not that we should expect our readers to intuitively understand everything we do. Sometimes we do need to work into our texts explanations of our worlds and magic systems or descriptions of our characters’ emotions. But when we explain too much, when we cross the line between showing and telling, we slow down our narratives and take away from the good work we’ve done on our story lines.
So trust your readers. Trust yourselves. Doing so will help keep your novels leaner, clearer, and more readable.