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Robert's Rules of Writing #44: Be a Tease

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

With rule #44, Masello advises writers not to throw all the information in a story at the reader at once. Especially in a work of fiction, he notes, readers needs time to assimilate all the information you're giving. Throwing too much at your readers too quickly may overwhelm them.

Although this is a piece of advice I staunchly believe in, there are cases where it isn't always the right way to approach a story. Sometimes you do want to throw your readers into the deep end, to immerse them as quickly and suddenly as possible in your fictional world. But if you choose to do that, you'd better provide some sort of SCUBA gear.

In recent years, some aspects of fiction-telling, especially on television, have become more complex. I'm reminded of an excellent book which I just read for the second time, "Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Pop Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter" by Steven Johnson. Johnson analyzes current TV shows, such as 24 and The West Wing, and shows how these shows are much more layered and complex than TV shows from earlier decades. One instructive chart he presents shows the connections between characters on 24 versus the connections between characters on Dallas. There are many more connections in 24 and much more for the viewer to keep track of in order to understand the story being presented. But TV viewers seem to have become more sophisticated; witness the popularity of shows like Lost. So maybe a little confusion is a good thing.

On the other hand, you don't want to leave your reader too confused. A murky opening to a story is usually the sign of unclear, amateur writing. I'm reminded of some sage advice I received from Howard Waldrop when I was a student at Clarion. To get its full flavor, you have to imagine the next paragraph being spoken in H'ard's deep Texas accent.

"You can make a reader go 'Huh?' and you can make a reader go 'What?' but you can't make a reader go 'Huh? What?' A 'What?' is a non-realization of the preceding 'Huh?'."

In other words, it's okay if your readers don't quite understand everything that's going on as the story begins, but if you keep up the confusion for too long, you'll lose the reader. I'm reminded of a story I tried reading once when judging a short story contest. By page 2, I had no idea if there were two characters involved in a dialogue or four. I couldn't tell if the story was set on a planet, a spaceship, or a space station. And finally, I asked myself, "Who are these people? What are they doing? Why should I care?" and I put the story down and moved onto the next.

Now, there's a difference between murky writing and complex writing, but there's one piece of advice that stays constant: give your readers something to hold onto as you take them through your fictional world. Because as soon as they feel too adrift, they'll abandon your world for somewhere else.


I really enjoy most of Connie Willis's works, but this posting reminds me of the one thing that drives me crazy in her works. Maybe I'm too accustomed to simpler narratives, but she chucks the reader into the middle of a hectic, complex, unintroduced world and only gradually fills in the framework. On first readings, I usually feel as if I'm madly dogpaddling just to keep up. Important details fly past unnoticed, and I have to go back and pick them out later, when I have a better idea what's going on. In her various writer commentaries, she's made it clear that she adores madcap screwball comedies; I suspect that explains her approach.
Connie does like to lay on the complexity, but depending on your taste, her writing style can usually more than make up for it. For me, it worked better in To Say Nothing of the Dog than in Doomsday Book. But it was perfect for one of her short stories, "Why the World Didn't End Last Tuesday."

December 2016

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