Is your Narrative Treating Readers like Idiots?
Sat Jul 08 2017
Let's imagine you're reading some kind of heist thriller, in which the protagonist thief is casing a commercial building under the guise of a job interview. The guy walks up to the receptionist and you read this:
"Hi. I'm Adam Berey," Felix said, not giving his real name. "I'm, uh, here for an interview with Ms. Jackson."
The receptionist flashed a plastic smile and handed him a clipboard. "Fill this out, please, while I sign you in."
Felix scribbled in the blanks and X'ed the boxes. He noted the black security-camera hemispheres on opposite corners of the ceiling, which together would leave no blind-spots in the room.
He handed the clipboard back as the receptionist peeled a sticker, printed with his name and the date, from its waxy backing. "Here's your visitor pass. Keep it on while you're here so security won't bug you. I'll let Ms. Jackson know you're ready."
Felix slapped the pass, which would allow him to roam the public areas of the building freely, onto his crisp Oxford shirt. He adopted a relaxed pose on one of the lobby's couches while considering the two cameras. I'll need the infrared floodlight, he thought, as it would overwhelm the camera sensors.
The question to ask yourself is, did any of that bother you? If so, My guess is that it was these specific parts:
- not giving his real name
- which together would leave no blind spots in the room
- so security won't bug you
- which would allow him to roam the public areas of the building freely
- as it would overwhelm the camera sensors
If those parts bugged you, I'll bet it was because they were so obvious they left you wondering why the author thought you needed to be told those things. Does the author think you're an idiot who can't figure anything out?
Everything in those examples is pretty self-evident: You'll know the protagonist's name, so if he gives someone a fake name you should not need to be told that this is what he just did. You just saw it!
Since the protagonist is a thief, you're going to be reading the story in a thievish mindset, and shouldn't need any help understanding why two oppositely-placed cameras are a problem.
The receptionist telling Felix that the pass will stop security from bugging him: isn't that the whole point of a visitor pass? Just by calling it a visitor pass, both Felix and the reader can already understand the implications.
And similarly with the others. When a story constantly hammers you with stuff that's obvious, after a while you begin to feel insulted.
The core problem here is explaining stuff that doesn't need to be explained.
When I put you in the position of reading an example, you probably find it easy to tell which parts are overexplaining: the very parts that you felt were redundant.
But when you're writing, it's harder. Your mind is occupied with all kinds of other tasks:
- tracking what's going on in the plot and where you need the plot to go next,
- tracking what clues you mean to include in the scene so you don't forget any,
- figuring out what everybody in the scene is thinking and feeling,
- figuring out how you're going to convey those thoughts and feelings,
- all the mundane tasks of scene-setting, managing time, and writing descriptions.
Amid all that, sometimes it's challenging to also filter out the stuff you shouldn't have to say. To do that would mean figuring out a whole other mindset--the reader's--so you can evaluate bits of dialogue and narration in light of how readers will likely take them.
Still, while I empathize with the reasons we overexplain, don't do it. Or at the very least, take particular care when revising to consider the reader's mindset and filter out the obvious.
Here are some common categories of information which you can safely leave out of your story:
- The purpose or general functioning of ordinary items. For example, you would never write a sentence like "Felix pulled out a chair, which was for sitting on, and offered it to his date."
- The meaning of body language and facial expressions. We're all human. We have a lifetime's experience with inferring people's mental states from what they're doing with their bodies. We'll figure it out.
- Anything that is already the reasonable, default thing/mood/action/purpose/etc. for a given situation.
- Shared cultural references. If your story includes a reference to "Fred and Ginger," you can probably trust them to know who you mean.
Ultimately, "obvious" translates into "I can leave this out because readers will just assume or conclude it anyway."
What's not obvious?
If you have some reason to think readers wouldn't automatically assume something, then go ahead and put it in. This is particularly likely with items of shared cultural context.
Culture--especially pop culture--changes all the time. Adults will get your "Fred and Ginger" reference, but if you're writing for the younger crowd you might need to replace that with "Bella and Edward" or whoever the hot new couple is these days.
Culture also changes from place to place. People from different backgrounds will bring different elements of shared culture to your book.
Which is why Mork from Ork sitting upside-down in a chair was funny: because being an alien, he did not share a piece of cultural context that is practically universal among humans. If he's your audience, maybe you do need to add "which was for sitting on" to your sentences about chairs.
And if you don't get that reference or the picture at the top of this article? Well, that just goes to make the point, and you kids can look it up on the Google while you're getting off my lawn.
Don't treat your reader like an idiot
Since overexplanations are that which readers would have assumed anyway, your story gains nothing by including them.
Worse, it loses something: the reader's belief that you respect their intelligence.
Would you want to a book that made you feel you're being insulted with every other line?
I wouldn't. Not when there's so many other good books out there competing for my time.