The writer’s responsibilities to inform readers

From Rick:

I apologize for not having posted here for two weeks. Last Monday my computer blew out its power supply. No files were lost, but I wasn’t able to access the post for last week in time. All is well now.

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Back before the internet, it wasn’t easy for readers to look up things they didn’t know or were not familiar with. You could call the library, and librarians were more than happy to help out. Some families had home encyclopedia sets, but even if you owned one of the expensive sets, none of them were extensive on any one topic, and finding small facts was next to impossible without a lot of research. If you wanted to know the name or artist of a song played on the radio, your only recourse was to call the radio station. Today, we don’t even need to know the song’s title. All we need is a few words from the lyrics and we can quickly find the song we’re looking for. Then we can quickly look up any information on the song and artist we wish. Those of you born after the internet won’t appreciate how truly difficult it was to look up such bits of information.

In those pre-internet times, we were less obsessed with trivia (because it was so hard to come by). We were a lot more impressed by game show contestants who seemed to have Wikipedia built into their brains. When a reader didn’t know a word in a book they were reading, they’d pull out a dictionary to look up the word.

It was more common for authors to incorporate knowledge and more detailed descriptions into their books to inform readers. Many readers in the mid-twentieth century read to learn as much as to be entertained. Devoted readers loved writers like Tom Clancy who, despite writing novels that spanned five hundred pages or more, taught his readers about the subject matter by describing and explaining in great detail.

Any writers who did not bring their world into the reader’s mind, or who left out information the reader needed to understand, didn’t have much of a following. My mom was a voracious reader who read everything from very smutty romance novels to lengthy tomes like Atlas Shrugged. Although I recall her not particularly liking the latter, she still read it to completion.

Today’s readers are different. Sadly, I find fewer who read novels purely to learn. Many seek instant gratification and are less willing to wade through pages of informational content. But one thing still has not changed: readers do not want to be confused because the writer left out important information. They don’t have the time or patience to put the book down to look up information. Readers will instead put down the book unfinished and move on to something else. Or they’ll finish the book and leave an unflattering review on Amazon.

My sister, a fast reader, refers to the works of Charles Dickens as “leisurely reads.” By this she means you have to take your time and digest them slowly. If you try to breeze through Dickens’ novels, you will miss too much and possibly get lost. His readers read for pleasure and entertainment and liked to be taken to other places with his words. They didn’t have a lot of reading choices either, so they savored what they could get their hands on.

By contrast, today’s readers have myriad choices to satisfy their tastes, and that means it’s harder to grab a dedicated audience.

Let’s consider a story I recently encountered. It opened with the line “I grew up in Algiers, on the ‘Point’…”

My first thought was that this took place in Algiers, the capital city of Algeria, a reasonable assumption. After that, the narrator of the story mentions the levee, and rolling muddy water, and the twin spires of the oldest cathedral in the country. Several street names didn’t match up either. At that point I pretty much knew I wasn’t in Algeria.

It wasn’t not until several pages later that New Orleans was mentioned and all the pieces fell into place. A Google search told me that this Algiers is a section of New Orleans, Louisiana. However, without the mention of New Orleans, even a Google search would not have helped much. The top two Google search results brought up the expected capital city in Algeria and an American rock band of the same name. At the bottom of that first Google search page, the Algiers/New Orleans connection was mentioned.

Had I put down the story and done a Google search, would I have even scrolled down the page? Would other readers? Of course, one could argue that patient readers would eventually learn by reading on. Maybe some readers wouldn’t care or might not know that Algiers is the capital of Algeria and therefore wouldn’t go down a false path.

My purpose here is not to criticize this writer but to remind you that, as the writer yourself, you are in control of your story. You decide where you take the reader and what the reader sees and knows about the story. As soon as you put the reader in the position of making potentially incorrect assumptions, you’ve lost that control.

In the best case of lost control, the reader makes a wrong assumption but gets set straight later, with no harm done. In the worst case, your reader gets confused, backtracks unsuccessfully to try to figure it out, then gets frustrated and abandons your story.

This can be a problem anywhere in a story, not just in the beginning. One could argue that it’s more of a problem in the beginning because losing the reader from the start might mean he or she won’t continue reading. Some readers will stick with it and be satisfied if the problem is soon resolved.

When you lose your reader later in the story, particularly in a longer work like a novel, you’re going to have a pissed-off reader who may well leave you a bad review, and that’s more damaging to you than a reader who puts the book down early on and doesn’t leave a review.

Don’t confuse leaving your reader guessing about what you meant with guessing what’s going to happen next. In the story that prompted this blog, the author could easily have added “Louisiana” after “I grew up in Algiers” and it would not have been intrusive to the story. It would, however, have immediately put the reader in the location the author intended without the potential for confusion.

Sometimes there’s a fine line between informing the reader and insulting the reader’s intelligence with information the normal reader might reasonably already know or understand. For example, we can often assume that references to certain popular, even iconic, movies will not confuse most readers, and if you overexplain, you’ll be treating your as ignorant. However, I can assure you that there are people who, while they’ve heard of Star Wars and Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, have never seen the movies and will likely not understand certain references to them, and as popular as Harry Potter is, I run into people of all ages who are only passingly familiar with books or the movies.

In my first novel, I wrote the following passage where the main character (Scott) is talking to a woman (Enelle) from another world.

*****

“If we come back here tonight after dark, perhaps we might see your home,” she said.

“It’ll be the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning,” I said.

“You know that?”

“I know that I’m probably never, never going to get back to Earth.” I told her about Peter Pan and the Lost Boys and Never-Never Land.

*****

A reader unfamiliar with the quote from Peter Pan would miss the humor in the second line. Even with the subtle explanation I added in the last line, some readers still might not get it. Of course, I could have left the lines out completely, or I could have explained them further for the reader instead of how I did it. Given the situation the characters were in and the fact that the main character’s penchant or sarcasm often came out when under stress, I felt the line added to his character. Explaining it further would risk insulting the intelligence of those readers who did get it and might paint me as a writer who didn’t trust my readers. That’s an important point to consider: trust your readers and don’t feel you have to hold their hands. They won’t appreciate that.

There’s rarely a perfect answer in these cases. The best advice is to ask yourself whether the reference adds something to the story or the character. If your reason for its inclusion is solely to show off your writerly skill, then definitely leave it out. Your readers won’t be impressed. Aside from vocabulary words a reader might not know, it’s best to minimize the amount of information the reader must look up to understand your story. And when it comes to vocabulary, always consider your audience. If you throw out too many words that your reader is unfamiliar with, you will probably lose all but the most steadfast of readers.

Let’s look at a couple of literary examples. The scholars among you will know that Gulliver’s Travels is more than a simple fantasy piece of writing. Author Jonathan Swift intended it as a satire on human nature, among other things, and also used it to criticize some notable persons of his day. Nevertheless, we can enjoy the tales without this knowledge.

Likewise, we can appreciate H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine without knowing that Wells’ story was also a commentary on social Darwinism, a philosophy popular in his time. Knowing this adds depth to the story, but it’s not essential for understanding it.

Don’t assume all readers will know obscure facts, but at the same time, don’t be afraid to throw out facts that inform the reader, as long as they don’t confuse. I receive an occasional submission to Fabula Argentea where the author explains what the about is about in the cover letter. That’s fine, but when that explanation becomes necessary in order to understand the story, then the writer has failed the duty as a writer. By “understand” I don’t mean the subtle story details or subtext; I mean the story as a whole. Without the explanation, the story makes little sense or is at best murky in its meaning.

The more you take the reader into unfamiliar territory, the more you need to explain and fill in the gaps, but you should do so in a way that feels natural in the story’s context and not as though you’re doing it to educate the reader.

In one of my early novels, the main character, Eli, a 160-year-old vampire, has lived much of his life in Detroit, Michigan. Adrian, his nineteen-year-old apprentice has been there just a few years and only knows modern-day Detroit. In one scene Eli wants Adrian to understand how Detroit used to be. Because the setting of Detroit was essentially a character in the story, I wanted to show it to the reader through Eli’s eyes without it coming off solely as a history lesson for the reader. Had Adrian already known the information, it would have come off that way.

I’m currently doing a drastic revision of that novel. This scene may or may not appear in the revised version (because Eli’s goal in the new novel is different), but regardless of what I do with the scene, it demonstrates one way to inform the readers who are unfamiliar with Detroit’s history without insulting those who are. I’ll let you be the judge of how well it worked.

*****

“Let’s go for a walk,” Eli told Adrian.

Around the neighborhood Eli pointed out houses Adrian had seen before but ignored. “You’re walking through history, Adrian. This is Boston-Edison. If you’d lived here in the early 1900s, you might have seen Henry Ford himself or other notable men of the auto industry, like Stanley Kresge.”

“Who?”

“Kresge started a chain of dime stores that became Kmart Corp.”

“I always wondered what the K stood for.”

They passed a boarded-up house. “Long before you were born, this was a busy, middle-class neighborhood. My people—the blacks—felt they deserved to live in such places, and they fought for that right. Within a few decades, the whites had vacated, and the neighborhoods went into decay and ruin amid recessions and riots.

“Detroit’s population has an unusual history. In 1920 it was 990,000 with four percent blacks. By 1950 it had doubled, but with sixteen percent blacks. Today, the total population has fallen to a lot less than it was in 1920—”

“And African-Americans make up over eighty percent,” Adrian said. “See, I don’t wallow in ignorance.”

Eli nodded. “Do you know why the black population changed as rapidly as it did?”

“I suspect you’re going to tell me.”

“In 1913 Henry Ford placed an ad offering equal pay to all workers, regardless of race, and that attracted us here.”

“You didn’t need a job, did you?”

“I came here for different reasons,” Eli said.

“I’m guessing you have a point to this history lesson?”

Eli faced him. “I want to do something about the problems plaguing Detroit.”

Sure, Detroit had a few problems, maybe more than a few. “As in…?”

“Make the city safer, get rid of the street crimes, the drugs.”

“Hmmm. Sounds like a lot of work.”

“Yes, it will be.”

“And I suppose you expect me to help. If I wanna play, I gotta pay, right?” Adrian patted his stomach. “A little extra exercise couldn’t hurt. I’m starting to put on weight, too much couch potato. It’s been a while since I did any street brawling, but it’s not something you forget.” He squeezed his upper arm muscles. “Have to get myself back in shape first.”

Eli gave Adrian the strangest look. “On the streets is exactly where I don’t want you.”

“I’m confused. Where do you want me?”

“Behind the scenes, putting those computer skills you keep bragging about to practical use.”

“My hacking, you mean? That’s illegal.”

Eli’s eyebrows rose again.

“I just do it to my friends, for fun, nothing bad… But you’re talking about hacking the bad guys who’re doing illegal stuff, right?”

Adrian rubbed his chin. Okay, he didn’t need to get in shape, but he could still hang out at a gym, do some workouts and impress the ladies there with his enhanced vampire strength and see where it led.

He squinted at Eli. “We’ll need lots of help. Do you think the Vampire Council will relax their stodgy rules about changing humans? I know a couple of human hackers who’d be perfect. That way I could have some vamps my age to hang with.”

“The Council won’t help with or condone my plan,” Eli said.

Now Eli had his attention. “You’re talking vigilante-style clean up, aren’t you? Sweet!”

*****

—Rick

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