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Readers are Smart—Respect What They Bring to Books

April 12, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 12, 2015

A friend and I were talking about books this week. Every so often we share our opinions on stories or authors that we find interesting.

This time, however, my friend didn’t have a positive recommendation to share, but a complaint.

She didn’t tell me the title or the author’s name for a book she was reading, but she did say that the author repeated several parts of the story multiple times. And my friend wasn’t talking about simple word repetition.

She said that the author told readers several times why a character behaved in a certain manner. The author also pointed out multiple times—and this is the issue that really bothered my friend—the setup behind the story world, including reasons paranormal beings behaved as they did and explanations for why the paranormal had developed in that world.

What my friend was getting at is that the author took pains to explain the setup behind the unusual rather than to simply let the unusual play out in a way that readers could investigate for themselves. The author didn’t trust readers to discover why the fictional world developed as it had and why the beings/characters in it behaved as they did.

While some overt explanation might have been necessary (or maybe just helpful), my friend felt that the author had gone well beyond what was needed for readers to make sense of the story world.

She actually wondered why some writers think their readers are dimwitted, incapable of connecting the dots or extrapolating from one book to another, from one fictional story world to the next.

I don’t have to say that she wasn’t pleased with the experience; her frustration was clear. She hadn’t yet tossed the book aside, but was contemplating it. Like me, however, she doesn’t like to not finish a book that she’s begun. When you don’t finish reading, you strand the characters in limbo forever; they never get a conclusion. Their problems are never resolved. I have a hard time leaving characters in that condition. Plus I’m curious—I need to know what happens. Otherwise I’m troubled by the unfinished events hanging over me, nagging at me every so often.

My point, however, is to remind writers that readers are smart, smart, smart. It’s likely that they’ve read dozens or hundreds—even thousands—of books, and many of those in the genre you write in.

They know genre conventions. They know what to expect. They understand that if something isn’t made clear right away that they will have answers at some point (unless the writer isn’t doing his or her job).

Readers don’t need spoon-feeding or detailed explanations for differences between one story world and another or between the real world and a fictional one. At least they don’t need to read too much rationalization for why a world exists as it does. Watching and listening to the characters is often sufficient to enable readers to draw fairly accurate conclusions.

And readers don’t need to be experts in writing in order to be expert readers who have learned what to expect from novels.

My friend isn’t a writer, doesn’t have anything to do with writing or editing or publishing. But she is a reader. And she’s learned an awful lot in her X number of years reading. She doesn’t need her hand held as she visits a new world. In fact she visits that new world in order to explore, to find something different, to challenge herself in some way. Like other readers, she often reads to test herself—can she outwit the bad guy, beat the detective to the murderer’s identity, learn the painful life lesson before the protagonist can?

If she didn’t want to try something new, she’d read the same book again and again or not read at all.

Just as other readers do, she wants different—even when books hold to general fiction conventions or to genre standards. But even when there are similarities, she wants a different character chasing a different quest or at least a quest different for that character’s life.

Readers come to stories for many reasons, but one is to explore a new world. To see what else is out there even when out there is actually in there, inside some writer’s imagination. But just as we explore the stars or quantum physics or the intricacies of DNA, we also want to explore the worlds that live solely in a writer’s mind. We want to explore the millions of worlds of our collective imaginations.

Understanding a fictional world can help us manage our lives in our real worlds. We want the challenges that fiction brings us—reading is a safe way to explore dark places and terrifying issues. And we can take what we learn in fiction and put it to work in the 3-D world.

Fictional worlds, the people in them, and the events that the characters become involved with can seem as real to readers as what they learn about galaxies and quarks and DNA’s double helix. Maybe the characters and events of the fictional world seem even more real because they can cause readers to cry and laugh, to shiver and fear. Fictional people and events can give living people genuine, authentic, emotional responses. There’s real power in fiction.

When readers—when each of us—set out to study and investigate and delve into new and unexplored worlds of fiction, we don’t want writers treating us as ignorant or weak or incapable. We want to feel brave and daring and sharp. Maybe perceptive and shrewd and bold.

We don’t want writers hovering or explaining or telling us what to think or how to maneuver through the minefields they’ve created. We want to be the ones making the discoveries. We want to be the smart ones, the brave ones, the wise ones.

Good writers make all this possible by the way they craft their stories, always leading but never too obviously, not in blatant ways that prove that they were there ahead of the reader, smoothing the path.

The path through a story should be clear, of course, so that readers will follow it. But the reader shouldn’t see the hand of the writer dusting off the path or shoving boulders aside. Readers shouldn’t hear the writer calling out, This way. Two steps to the right and then over the ridge.

For some writers, this may not be easy, this hiding of self and pushing characters and plot events to the forefront where the reader can latch on to them in order to move through the story. But it must be done if you want to create stories and story worlds where readers can get lost in the adventure or the events or the emotions, imagining themselves inside the story world or in the character’s shoes, imagining what they’d do in similar circumstances.

Writers, treat your readers with respect. Assume they’ve read a book or two or two thousand before yours. Assume they’ve seen a TV show or movie, and that they understand the basics of fiction and genre.

And writers, trust yourself. If you’ve shown the way your story world works, don’t second guess yourself and feel you need to explain as well. Actually, don’t explain in the traditional sense if you can avoid doing so. Show characters or beings in action, doing what it is they do. Show the oddities of the story world playing out in ways that readers can see so they’ll understand what’s going on and be able to infer the setup behind the world.

Yes, you may have to explain some peculiarities. But when you don’t have to explain, don’t. Let readers do what they do, which is figure out the story world and the motivations behind the characters’ actions. Let readers make discoveries. Let readers explore and delve into your world’s treasures.

Don’t simply walk readers to the edge of the world and lay out the particulars in a couple paragraphs or pages of descriptive clarification. Put the characters of your world into motion and allow readers to discover what’s behind all the unusual elements of that world.

Respect readers and their experiences with fiction and the written word. And write with the understanding that readers bring a whole lot more to their reading than just a few hours of time to kill. They bring experience and curiosity and expectation and excitement.

You would do well to write your stories knowing what readers carry with them, to actively plan ways to satisfy savvy readers with your characters, their adventures, and your fictional worlds.

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12 Responses to “Readers are Smart—Respect What They Bring to Books”

  1. Scott says:

    I’m curious whether the book your friend is reading was self-published. How did the repetition get past beta readers and an editor?

    • Scott, I don’t know whether it was self-published or not. Good question. She reads both print books and from an e-reader of some sort, so it could have been self-published or published by a traditional publisher. I’ve read traditionally published books that had unusual errors in them, errors that got past someone. It can happen, of course—there are errors in all books. And not one of us is perfect. But if we can head off errors, I’m all for issuing warnings that can help writers put out the best stories possible.

      And sometimes the errors aren’t even in the text. Have you heard about Christina Dodd’s infamous 3-armed heroine cover? Not every mistake is caught before publication. I admit that one makes me smile every time I think of it.

      • Scott says:

        I had not heard about it, but I just looked up that three-armed cover you mentioned. Wow.

        Christina Dodd writes about that cover on her website, complete with photo. When I look at it, I imagine a corpse or, perhaps, another woman hiding behind the woman in the white dress. Mysterious! Kinky! I MUST READ THIS BOOK!

        I guess it worked out for Christina. That cover apparently turned out to be the literary equivalent of the upside-down airplane stamp, or the “Inverted Jenny,” as it is known.

        By the way, I really appreciate your blog posts. They are better than most books and articles that I read.

        • Scott, I can just imagine Christina’s mortification when she discovered that cover. But you’re right—it has certainly helped her in the long run. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if all the oops in our lives turned out so well.

          And thanks for letting me know that you appreciate the posts. That’s always great to hear.

  2. Francesca says:

    Thanks for this post. I too am not a writer but a reader’s reader. Although, I will abandon a book once I realize there are no poignant messages or opportunities to suspend reality. I have found recently that many new books are being written with what I call ‘filler.’ Maybe some authors are afraid of the short story?

    Thanks again, lovely read. F

  3. Thanks for sharing a reader’s perspective, Francesca.

    I’d guess that many who write novels simply don’t enjoy writing short stories. They are different arts and require different approaches. If a writer has his or her heart set on writing long fiction, that’s what they’ll want to go with.

    But you’re right—a novel or other long fiction needs enough plot to fill it out. Filler is no fun to read. I would say it’s also no fun to write. Not when compared to working through a story in a way that steadily raises tension and throws new risks at the characters. It’s so much fun (and work too, of course) to actually craft a novel, to make sure there are links between all the elements, to tie those elements tightly so they come across as a unified whole rather than as pieces of semi-related story parts.

    I hope you find many, many novels this year that give you much more than filler.

  4. maya says:

    Reading this reminded me of Murakami’s 1Q84. I find excesive repetition and ‘helicopter writers’ very annoying in my books, but I guess it depends on the story and the quality of writing. Sometimes this happens due to lack of editing and other times, the writer is so famous, he or she stops listening to editor’s advice. In any case, even though I was surprised to have stuck with the book, it remains one of the dearest to my heart, like a temperamental teenager in love with the sound of his voice, but what a voice it is.

    • Maya, I’m guessing that maybe it’s not only (or not necessarily) that famous writers ignore advice but that maybe editors simply assume their work doesn’t need that extra going over. If the writer’s work is usually clean and strong, the editor may assume it will be that way every time.

      Or maybe the deadlines get tighter. Maybe the writer doesn’t have as much time to go through his fourth or fifth book as he has with books number one and two.

      There are probably a variety of reasons why any one book isn’t as strong or clean as the others by the same writer.

      But I understand what you mean about stories being dear to us, even with their flaws. Yet that’s when I wonder how fantastic they could have been if the problems had been addressed. It’s great to have awesome passages that stir us and characters that touch us. But at the same time, how much better would it be to also have fewer passages that annoy or that don’t live up to the others. Good writing and good editing help us include the good stuff while cutting out the not so good.

      I don’t know 1Q84, but just checked into it briefly. It sounds fascinating.

  5. Ali says:

    This feels like a good post to comment on how ramble-y some of your advice is. Its getting hard to focus on twenty paragraphs of the same ideas repeated in bold or italics when there’s only two paragraphs worth of solid advice. In the grammar posts, that can help stick a rule in your mind, but posts like these seem like essays you had to pad the word count for.

    Sorry to be negative. I really appreciate that you’ve made this blog because it has taught me a lot. Your archive is filled with a lot of good topics that I’ve had a hard time learning about anywhere else.

    • Ali, don’t worry about sounding negative. I certainly don’t mind that you share your opinion.

      I’m actually surprised no one commented about the length of one of the other recent articles; this one is the shortest by far of the last eight. But you’re right that it’s more essay than an article of helpful tips. Even though I love presenting specifics on the how-tos of writing, I sometimes need to write an article for myself, thus the occasional essay that deals less with rules and more with some of the other components of fiction. So while I usually write specifically for the writer and editor, I also need to share what touches me.

      Please feel welcome to comment at any time.

  6. I see what you’re saying but I’ve read no end of reviews saying ‘but I didn’t understand why character X did that action. It wasn’t explained clearly.’ I’ve read the book in question and thought ‘but it was totally obvious why character X did that action.’

    I’ve also read reviews which say ‘but it wasn’t logical for character X to do that action.’ Humans/ characters don’t do logical things, they are affected by emotions and other people.

    I suppose some people ‘get’ subtle hints about why characters do things and some people do not… Writers just have to do their best to strike a balance between over explaining and under explaining.

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