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How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?
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This question will help us get to the crux of what is meant by show don’t tell, essentially. A reader should not feel as though they’re slogging through your work, like a rainy day hike up Mount Snowdon. This is not to say that reading doesn’t come with some effort. A reader is expected to remember things and carry information with them along the way. However, that should be a purse size load, not a steamer trunk.
If your reader is doing too much labor to read your work, they’re going to quit. First, reading is a fun pastime. Don’t ever lose focus of that. No matter how complex a work you wish to produce, when you let go of this, you’ll lose your readers, too. I know that those of you reading this will cite works like Star Wars and Star Trek, Harry Potter and The Wheel of Time. And, I am sure you’ll think of Lord of the Rings.
While Tolkien is often described as laborious, the others have enjoyed a rich and vast worldbuilding even larger. I’ve read the majority of Tolkien’s works and found them deeply interesting and rich on lore. I’ve also read a great deal of the Robert Jordan work. The Star Trek and Star Wars franchises were consumed largely on video. There are books and games and so much more to go along with all of these worlds. That’s a lot of work for fans to keep up with!
Why do these work succeed while others fail? The key is in how the load of information is delivered unto the reader. Star wars makes excellent use of the time it has to unfold all the information a viewer need have to understand the story and enjoy the ride. The process feels effortless! The load on one’s memory is not as great, because it also culminates in a couple of hours. A book would take longer, requiring subtle reminders to keep the memories active.
I recommend studying how the scripts of Star Wars unfold information to the viewer in order to get an idea of effective time usage. Star Trek does this to a more limited scale. Unlike Star Wars, there are things I forget very rapidly in conjunction with the Rodenberry empire. However, it still ranks very highly for me as a preeminent worldbuilding work.
I’m blessed to have the above titles there to help guide me as I make the journey with my own expansive universe. In more recent times, I’ve also realized that my love of comics, such as Marvel’s X-Men and Captain America, as well as the DC Universe, have all fed into these concepts and skills. Comics are serialized into smaller nuggets, leaning more on the imagery than the word. They lend themselves quite easily to visual mediums over literary.
This stated, there is still a lot to think on. My job isn’t easier having this knowledge and skill. It simply provides me greater means to accomplish the ends. I cannot ever forget the intended reader as I make my moves. Trailokya houses a lot of information, and wrestling that into an effective story wasn’t always easy. I created a book bible that has turned into a reader’s companion. This is something I have in common with all the titles above.
I’ve planned to continue the series into other regions of the worlds I built. Having a world companion is a great bonus. I always appreciated this in the back of The Wheel of Time and wished for it from the others. Thankfully, the fandoms responded by providing and building these resources themselves. We writers may not always have the time to slow down and consider this need. That’s an unfortunate loss of a wonderful opportunity to help readers work less and enjoy more.
Unlike the above worlds, writers creating new spaces to explore don’t have the benefit of established resources. This factor is extremely important to consider when undertaking the project. My advice is to create your bible as you go. You can always organize and polish it later for public consumption. I also advise that you plan to provide it to the public. You can argue about the spoilers it provides, but that is something the reader can choose to engage or not.
Readers, secondly, don’t need their hands held. While you create your book bible (or companion material), keep this in mind. Don’t condescend them. Treat the companion material like a non-fiction piece elaborating and defining clinically. You’ll avoid spoilers for the most part this way. You’ll also avoid being unclear. In addition, this piece can provide you with a means for keeping your own story straight.
Showing not telling is the last bit of writing advice that will help you help the reader in the best way possible. Exposition is deadly to any work. While you cannot avoid it all, you must try your utmost to do so. What does it mean exactly? Instead of explaining something to your reader, you show them, just as it says. You take the sentence Aaron was a mean sort and show why he was by an act or bit dialogue that gives no doubt as to Aaron’s character.
The less exposition the better the read for your reader. You’re taking them on a journey, not reading them the news. Think of them as another character who must experience the action of the story to understand where things are going and what is happening just as any other character you have in the book. It may seem that exposition is easiest on your reader, but it makes it quite difficult for them to immerse in the story and enjoy the time. It’s like being talked at instead of doing. Did you enjoy lectures at school more than labs? Exactly. Put your reader in the lab not the lecture.
The reason a reader chooses a piece of fiction is to go on an adventure. They’ll be learning as much about themselves as they learn about your characters. If they cannot build the experience, they’re going to put down the book. Let them run through your world and find all the treasures in well-spaced intervals that reward their efforts. Don’t make it so easy it’s boring, and don’t make it so difficult they become frustrated and give up.
Unless you’re writing for children, don’t treat your reader like a child. Also, don’t assume their knowledge. This delicate balance is what makes a powerful story and storyteller. Striking the balance is what you’ll find when you hone your craft.
Be sure to read what the other authors have to say on this topic, especially if you’re a writer. Click on their links below…
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