Let Your Reader Think

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When I read self-published books one of the main problems is the tendency to overwrite scenes. This overwriting is not about waxing lyrical on describing scenery (although that is a problem), but wanting to make sure that your point is the only interpretation that the reader can take from that piece of dialogue or action. This is a form of authorial arrogance that needs to be held in check. It is an author being so proud of the idea that they have ensconced in words that they have to add a sentence that basically says, "Look at the the clever thing I've just written." It is like a young child bringing their painting to their parent to be congratulated on their achievement. The problem for the author is that the reader is not an adoring parent, but an increasingly frustrated customer who is close to abandoning your book unfinished. 

An example of overwriting would be the following scene, with the overwritten part in bold:

Alice had just been told that her husband could not be saved by the surgery team. When the doctor left, Maureen came across and sat beside her daughter and told her hand. Alice appeared not to notice but continued to stare ahead into the empty space of the room. Tears began to roll down Maureen's cheeks and several times her lips moved no words came out. Of course Alice was unaware of this as she was staring straight ahead and that made Maureen glad because all she wanted was for her daughter to know that she was there to help her and did not want these stupid tears to be a distraction.

It is a natural impulse for the author to want the reader to know exactly what the author intended to convey with this scene. The overwritten part of the scene is a classic example of the problem tackled by the fiction writing maxim show don't tell. The scene has already shown Maureen's concern in her actions and Alice's state of shock in her inaction, so the part in bold is unnecessary padding that adds little for most readers and will make some want to stop being a reader of this book. Reminding the reader that Alice is staring straight ahead is an insult to the reader's intelligence as they have been told this just two sentences ago. Pointing out Maureen's motivation is not redundant, but it does shut down other possible interpretations. The scene might have led the reader to wonder what lay behind Maureen's tears, but the overwriting has dismissed the tears as an irrelevance and told the reader how they are to interpret Maureen's actions. 

This type of overwriting has a strong pedigree in English literature: it is reminiscent of the narrator in a Shakespearean play who tells the audience what has just happened and adds an interpretation for the audience to take away. The problem for a 21st century author is that a century of cinema has given the contemporary reader a very different mindset. They do not expect a narrator to pop up to tell them what to think, but might expect the above scene in a film or soap opera to end with the camera zooming in on a shot that takes in both women's faces. The modern viewer is given space to make up their own mind in a way that a Tudor play's audience often was not. This results in someone used to cinema or television finding those Shakespearean narrators a distraction from the story. A writer who seeks to close down a reader's thought processes risks not only their book being abandoned as unread, but that reader deciding that books are boring and it is much more enlightening and entertaining to watch television.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved

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