06 July 2007

How much to explain

How much do you leave for the reader and how much do you explain? Does this depend on genre? It seems to me that "good" writing leaves room for the reader's imagination to fill in the gaps. But sometimes I've read reviews, usually of genre books, that complain that the writer didn't make everything clear. Are these lazy readers who want everything spelled out, or has the writer missed putting in some crucial piece of information that the story hangs on? I think it is often the first. Genre readers are more used to being told everything -- perhaps because of a larger reliance by writers on omniscient POV. Their readers are not as used to working for it. Literary readers have to use their imaginations a lot. Crime writers, I suspect, are good at it too, since they all seem to read looking for clues.

John Marsden doesn't describe his characters from the outside. Readers wear their skin, see the world from their POV. I never miss not having these details -- perhaps because I'm not visual. Nothing is more boring to me than a flat description of what a character looks like/is wearing. Some writers can get away with telling these type of details because they do it with such fresh, arresting details that the reader is engaged. But some... Tell me she had eyes like sapphires, and thick, wiry black hair, and I'll be stifling a yawn. A few years ago I picked up a favourite horse book from my childhood years and was astonished to find the opening sentence was something like "So and so wore fawn jodphurs, a tweed riding jacket and knee-length black leather riding boots, and her horse wore a dressage saddle and an eggbutt snaffle bit". Oh, please.

It's hard deciding how much to explain to a reader: I'm writing fantasy so do I go with a more maximalist effect or make them work. In the end, I usually try to make them work because I do believe it's better writing. More satisfying for the reader who does do the work and puts together the clues.


Adambrowne666 said...

There are 2 kinds of writers, those who tend to overexplain, and those who tend to underexplain. I used to do the former - afraid the reader wouldn't get my meaning - I think it stems from my fear that people aren't listening. Slowly I realised less is more. Until it becomes too much less. I remember a quote from a 13 year old writer in a friend's online YA magazine - she said the reader is in the dark, the writer is holding the candle...

I'm rereading Iain M Banks's Inversions. There are 2 parallel stories which I had assumed in a previous reading - and until almost all the way through the book in this reading - that they take place on the same world. Now, this morning, I suddenly realised they don't. Not sure if it's through him underexplaining or me being a goose.

Still, it works in your stuff, I think, Tracey - you lead the reader on a knifedge - sometimes takes 2 reads (if the reader is a goose) to get all the implications, but it's worth it.

Tracey said...

Mmm, thanks, Adam. I like the candle analogy -- so it's a matter of whether you're better off with a birthday-cake candle or a brilliant torch that shows up everything. Yes, I think less is more, but your writing is so seriously weird (in a good way) that it's never bothered me.

Now you'll have to read Inversions again, won't you? Kind of like seeing The sixth sense more than once and how differently you watch it the second time around.

ellen said...

This is something I struggle with as well. I fear I must have a tendancy to underdo it, because my few readers are always in need of clarification!

I think in fantasy sometimes you need to explain more than you want to, because you're dealing with a completely different world that is not intuitive to your reader, no matter how smart they are, nor how intuitive it is to you (the writer).

As a reader I really like being dumped in the middle of the world and having to figure things out, but if it's a complicated setup, sometimes a little explanation here and there will keep me in the story, rather than pulling me out.

Sherryl said...

What can be really useful is to read someone's book who you think does it well, then photocopy about ten pages and go through them with coloured pens, working out exactly how much of each kind of description, setup, character stuff, etc they've done, and how they've done it.
People scoff at the idea that this can be helpful, but it shows you stuff that you just don't notice by reading only. To me, there's always more to learn, and this micro-level of examination almost always pays off.

Lisa66 said...

I'm definitely an underexplainer! I always have to flesh my characters and settings out in the rewrite.

I do think genre makes a difference. I'm not a fan of physical description but it's almost essential in romance writing. Of course the trick is to find the telling details, so we don't bore the reader stupid!

Good tip Sherryl. I'm going to give it a try.