A funny meme came up on my Facebook page the other day. It depicted a conversation between a doctor and a woman. The doctor informed her that her husband’s status is stable, and that he is currently in the recovery room. The woman replies “Well, I warned him that the floor was wet and he stepped on it anyway”. To this, the doctor responded, “This doesn’t explain the bullet in his skull.” and the woman replied “So, I shot him.”
There is one section of this meme, that is not only unnecessary, but quite frankly condescending and off-putting, to the degree that it actually ruined the joke. Why? because instead of making me laugh, it kind of pissed me off.
Why do we need to see the woman reply “So, I shot him”? The author of that joke should have just left that part out, and trust us to make the connection. But by following it through, it told us “This joke is funny because so and so.” It’s a distraction from the punch line for one, and a slight insult at the reader, which… spoils the fun.
This meme did not make me want to write a post. It simply sharpened a point or two that I wanted to discuss for a while now. I’ve read books on writing, attended workshops, listened to podcasts, and listened to many writers talk about their craft. One thing that really stood out for me, is the varying opinions about how much information should be shared with the reader. It includes aspects like description, dialogue as well as information that is key to the plot.
Everyone warns against the “information dump” and for a good reason. If we wanted that, we could’ve bought an instruction manual or something. But everyone agrees that information should be imparted to the reader, so she would be able to understand what, where, how etc. and follow the story along. The opinions begin to differ at this point. What method best serves this sharing of information? description, narrative voice, dialogue? How much information should be revealed, and at which part of the story? How reliable the information is? All of these are valid questions, and interesting topics, for another post.
The question I’d like to raise here is, how much information is enough? Where do we draw the line, between – giving the reader the needed information to stay engaged and understand what’s going on – and patronizing him with information that he should be able to infer?
There is an aspect that doesn’t necessarily depend on the writer, which is the type of reader. Some readers love the immersion in the environment, the little details – especially when it’s shared via eloquent, beautiful language. There are others, who would like a magic marker that would remove every “unnecessary” bit of description and “stick to the story”. When we write, we will have to live with the fact that some people will not enjoy the style of our writing, or more accurately, won’t enjoy it to the fullest.
There is also the aspect of genre. One might expect to find different level of detail in a romance than what he would find in a thriller. The way information is shared in either one may very well be different, as well as the technique used to share it.
But in all genre – I find – the stories that captivated me, and kept me engaged as a reader, were the ones where some information was held back. The opposite is true as well – stories that fed me too much, made the reading a bit tiresome. I don’t recall a book I slammed shut and refused to read, just based on this aspect, but I can say that parts of books felt more labored, ironically because they did not make my brain fill in some gaps.
Now, as a writer I face a dilemma. Having the reader experience I just described, how much information and which piece of it do I hold back? perhaps “Hold back” is not a 100% accurate. Perhaps the term should be “leave to the reader”. How much space, do I leave to the reader? I want to be generous, and trusting, and leave a good bit of it for the reader’s imagination to fill in. But I also don’t want to lose the reader by withholding important information that she may not be able to fill in – I have to be fair.
I wish there was a mathematical formula, but I’m sad to report that, having read quite a few books that handled this very well (based on my full engagement), I do not have a proven ratio. And that makes perfect sense. There are so many things to consider here. Genre is one. Target audience is another. But there is also the question of when to leave something for the reader? Did I lay enough ground work, to make it logical (within the story’s frame)? I like tidy endings, no loose ends. I’m not a huge fan of “letting the reader choose the ending”, though I do think that even these threads, which we bring to closure at the end of our story, should not be with no room for the reader to experience them the way they feel like.
A tricky set of balancing acts, no doubt. So, what to do?
For me, it seems like the best formula for this type of problem is – give it to someone and ask them to tell you where they might have gotten lost, what did they understand, and how easy was it for them to read? I am guilty of being a prisoner of my own (very likely flawed) logic. Some things seem obvious to me, but were pointed out as unclear by others. Some things I say that draw the reaction “Well, duh…” So, I guess there is only one way to understand whether you shared enough information or too much – ask your potential reader.
Now let me explain this to you.