The reader is your collaborator

[— Karen Myers —]

Telling a story requires a collaborator, not a passive recipient. Look at that picture above. On the one hand, it’s just the start of a story. But since the readers bring what they know to the process, it’s also a complete story all by itself. Do they really need anything else?

Mind you, each reader will jump forward, fabulating the next scenes with different details, but he has everything he requires to spin out the rest of this story in his own way. Some readers will notice the appropriateness of the wolf in his little red sports car as a rebel-outlaw-who-was-never-ever-any-good, vs the pigs’ comfortable sedans. Some will focus on an apocalyptic destruction of the buildings. Others will invent problems for the wolf just to thwart him. It all depends on their individual tastes and proclivities.

And the fact that they all recognize the references: The Three Little Pigs / Outlaw-rides-into-town / Disaster movies / etc.

You need a good idea of what’s already in your readers’ heads to make them partners in the process. If your story premise is exotic enough, you may need to explain things just a bit more than this cartoon does. “Everybody knows…” is a pretty fallible guide for what to leave out.

How do you draw the line between not doling out enough information vs drowning your readers in backstory/world-building? And what aspects of those decisions are the most important in your decision process… Not breaking the rhythm of the story telling? Not boring the intelligent reader with unnecessary info? Not leaving the reader hanging trying to grasp the context? Other considerations?

10 thoughts on “The reader is your collaborator

    1. …and then they argue with you about it in the review: “what happened to X (which you didn’t actually talk about)?”

      Gives one a vivid picture of a reader’s stunned Warners Bros cartoon head with colorful animated figures whirling around the outside quarreling with each other in exotic fabulated settings.

      1. You know, just like you fail to write something fully as intended (“I know what I meant to say…”), as you hope to notice when you edit, a reader has much the same issue (“I know what I meant to read”).

        That’s why slipping them the occasional redundant clue is such a good idea if you want them to be happy.

        1. The masters of this are the old Warners Bros writers, esp. for Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck or Porky Pig, where they self-referentially provide actual labeled signposts pointing the clueless in the direction of the action (when they lag behind the viewing audience).

          Is there anything sarcasm can’t do? ๐Ÿ™‚

  1. I err on the side of less is more. The first time I read Wheel of Time I LOVED the description of everything. My dad liked it less so, and told me he ended up skipping a lot of it. As I’ve written my own books and stories I decided early on not to follow Robert Jordan’s example. I read a lot of different things in the meantime and decided I liked how Ernest Hemingway’s work flowed in comparison to Jordan’s. Of course, I’m not Hemingway either so I’m sure anyone reading my work will find plenty of ways for me to improve, but, as I said, I err on the side of less is more.

  2. When I’m writing in a new world, I tend to data dump early. Then as I go, I can refer back and make sure I’m being consistent. At some point it usually winds up cut and pasted to the end where I can find it for reference. Then at some point I have to make sure I’m scattering needed information in where it’s needed. Generally, writing SF or Fantasy, you just need a few mentions of the tech or how the magic works. The vast majority of SF/F readers will take FTL, space stations, and talking animals in stride, without needing detailed justification or explanation.

  3. Working with a character who I’ve realized is a bit of a cloths horse. The catch is, the viewpoint character isn’t and basically has no idea about the subject.

    So there’s this dance where I have a clear visual in my head of what they look like (I’m a very visual thinker), and then I need to translate/filter it down to what part of that the viewpoint character is actually perceiving or understands how to describe.

    Don’t know how well it works yet. Will have to find out ounces it’s actually in a draft state and able to go to beta readers. That’s going to be a while: keep needing to do work on the male lead to get his head mechanics fully working.

    1. I have vivid memories of Lois McMaster Bujold bemoaning the weaknesses of tight-third-person narration: “I had a lovely wedding going, and the bride was wearing cap sleeves and Alencon lace and {indecipherable fabric details}…and I ran it all through Miles Vorkosigan’s head and it came out “white foofy stuff.”

      1. Yeah, there is that. I think I even remember that sequence too. It was glorious. The best part is, you can tell he knows exactly what it looks like; he just has no useful words to describe it.

        And the MC viewpoint filter does allow me to have some hilarious head cannon going without showing the serial numbers ๐Ÿ™‚

        I will have to be careful of all that though. I think there is a section near the end where it will need to be close coupled to the female lead’s perspective instead. I can see a double issue of making sure her perspective is distinct, and the hazard of surprising the reader with a viewpoint shift. I’m not sure the distinction will be a problem (her voice is *very* different) but I’m not yet sure how to do the shift without ambushing the reader.

        But, that’s probably a problem for when I’ve got the character architecture working. I’d rather not give up the laser sequence, but that will depend on what the story needs to work.

  4. In WIP 1, I’m using references to the complex political mess around the setting so that readers won’t be surprised when the protagonist and his associates realize “oh nuts, we’ve got to solve this ourselves, if we can, AND keep [really powerful outsiders] from learning that there might be a wee, tiny problem here.” In WIP 2? It’s pure fantasy completely outside of the real world (literally. The male lead created a place for himself from Chaos) so even I have no idea where the story’s going. I’ll have to go back and add what’s needed.

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