Making the Reader Work

Sometimes I get the complaint on my books that, early on, I give information without sufficient context to understand it, leaving the reader confused.  It’s true; I do this.  I do it for the simple reason that, as a reader, I love when writers do that and manage to pull it off.  When they fail to pull it off, not so much.  There is no simple formula to answer the question: how much work should I demand of the reader early on?  But there are some things to consider.

In general, this information falls into three types: 1) Trust me, I’ll get to it. 2) You don’t need to know. 3) If you need context for this, you’re an idiot.  I tend to give information without sufficient explanation or context when, with a first-person or a close third-person point of view, it would be out of character for the narrator to describe it, and that would knock me out of the story (I can think of numerous writers who do this; I shan’t name them).

In The Incrementalists, for example, the first of those has to do with the nature of the world we’ve created, and special terms used in and about that world.  With this, it is the author’s responsibility, not to explain, but to earn the reader’s trust enough to convince the reader that, if you just keep going, all will be well.  The second has to do with things like poker terms.  These will often read as if they are the same as the first; the difference emerges later, when the reader realizes that they’ve never been explained and it doesn’t matter.  For the third–if I’ve given you a date, and said that the guy is watching the news, then mention some news stories, well, sorry; you have everything you ought to need and if it bugs you that’s your problem.

The big question for a writer is: How do I earn the reader’s trust? Interestingly enough, one the best ways involves creating more confusion.  That is, if on the very first page, there are terms and concepts the reader couldn’t possibly be expected to understand, the reader will have the reaction, “Well, clearly I’m not meant to get it, so the writer must be doing this deliberately, so I’m in good hands.” Zelazny was a master of this technique.  Another way is to simply make the events that are clear, or the narrative, so compelling the reader feels the need to continue, no matter what.  Zelazny didn’t suck at that, either.

The question remains, though, just how far to push reader confusion.  There’s no simple answer.  It’s a balancing act, and one of the things that determines how well a given reader will like a given writer is how strong a match-up there is on this balance.  Too little explanation and I get confused and frustrated.  Too much explanation, and I get bored and insulted.  Hit it perfectly, and one of the joys of story opens up, as I go, “Ah!  THAT’s what’s going on!  Cool!” and I realize that, had it been laboriously explained, I’d have been denied the epiphany.

But the fact is, for some readers, nothing is going to work except a careful, step-by-step explanation of each new concept.  For those readers, all I can say is, there are plenty of other writers who will provide that, so I suggest you read one of them.

ETA: David Wohlreich (@wallrike on Twitter) said it beautifully: “When a fish explains what water is, I’m unhappy.”

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43 thoughts on “Making the Reader Work”

  1. I like it when you do this. I just saw something in The Sun, The Moon, And The Stars that I’d never seen before. It was delicious.

  2. I’ve copied the fifth (second-to-last) paragraph and put it with all the other useful technique-explaining writing advice I’ve collected. At this point I’d might as well format a “Steven Brust on Writing” pamphlet and submit it for your approval, it’s pretty much all you. Thank you once again, Steve.

  3. This is a very profound topic so far as I’m concerned.

    When I read, I love stories that conceal puzzles, stories that appear to offer antinomies and contradictions up front that are later resolved, and stories that allow me to learn what’s going on over time from hints, actions, and dialogue instead of from exposition. When a writer manages to explain and justify everything to my satisfaction by the end of the story, I feel a sort of closure that is similar in some ways to catharsis or to the resolution of a symphony.

    But when I write, I feel like I have to go overboard in explaining everything. I know that’s wrong, and I try to repress the urge, and I’m convinced that providing the minimum possible explanation is the way to go whenever possible; but it’s very hard to do well.

    I also think it would be better to provide extra exposition than to screw up the mystery or hidden subtext to the point that the reader doesn’t actually get it or feel that sense of satisfaction at the end. And there are, after all, cases where skillful writers have actually included long tracts of exposition without disrupting the flow of the story; so another related question is how to insert exposition without annoyance.

  4. While I’ve not thought about it in these terms, I think it’s a big reason why I enjoy your works so much. I remember the first time I picked up Taltos, the first thing I ever read by you, and remember not getting it until the end that the intro to each chapter was Vlad performing the spell to bring the vial of Goddess blood to the paths of the undead. The whole time I am reading (I won’t even deal with the other two divergent timelines) those chapter intros, I am like “WTF is that nonsense” and after the 3rd or 4th chapter, I started just skimming those, in part because I didn’t understand and because the story itself was so compelling.

    Then I get to the end, want to smack myself in the forehead, but I had that epiphany you describe. Of course I stopped right were I was, thumbed back to the beginning of each chapter to re-discover what I had clearly missed. When I finished the book, all I could think was “Man, that was hot”. That’s what that comment on the front meant about watching Brust because he will surprise you.

    I enjoy the intellectual challenge and frankly, I know that I am going to lose every time. But it also is why I can re-read your works over and over and have some new context or thought pattern about the events Vlad is describing emerge, making it like the 1st time all over again.

  5. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy this post as it began, but the end explains the title: some readers want to work and get a kick when they work something out and feel cheated when you don’t let them. I loved how Zelazny’s start of the Chronicles of Amber was the Bourne Identity in fantasy, though it made you work (along with the amnesiac narrator) to understand what was going on. The fact the reader shared this with the narrator was fun.

    Working out schemes to make the work fun is part of the art, no?

  6. I very much enjoy not being handed everything. Some things become obvious through context–no need to be literally explained. Some things the author does explain in the due course of time and in a natural manner–no need to stop right now for an info dump. Other things comprise a marvelous puzzle that gradually emerge and can be explored as the novel progresses.

  7. I’d heard that Steven was a protege of Roger Zelazny, but they say those things a lot. I agreed with the statement when I noticed Steven doing what Roger did, not overexplain things, leaving things up to the reader to work out. Zelazny was a master of that, and Brust picked right up where Roger left off.

  8. It would be interesting to list some other authors who were capable of similarly involved gradual revelations over the course of a story. Apart from Zelazny, one who comes to mind offhand is Avram Davidson, particularly in his wonderful Dr. Esterhazy stories, which were mostly what-is-going-on-here mysteries.

    Who else would you consider to be a master of this kind of technique?

  9. Alan Moore on how far to take reader confusion:

    “People have asked me why I made the first chapter of my first novel so long, and in an invented English. The only answer I can come up with that satisfies me is, to keep out the scum.”

  10. Mystery and uncertainty are tools good writers–and you are one!–use to create forward momentum. At least on the first reading, most people read books to “see what happens,” and that extends as far as “what does this term mean?” or “how does this custom work in this setting?” as well as “how is this character going to get themselves out of this situation?”

    I would also say that Tim Powers and Gene Wolfe are also masters of this, but I’m pretty sure you’re also fans of them, so I don’t need to tell you that ;)

  11. Heinlein did this all the time. Particularly in his short stories. More often than not, his M.O. was to start the story right at the narrative hook, then fill in the exposition in bits and pieces as he went along.

    As with any writer, this “cold-open” approach worked better in some stories than in others.

    But when the first line of a novel is a bit of startling dialogue from the protagonist with absolutely no context, I think of Heinlein.

    Or Dragon, of course.

  12. @lisefrac: Oh yes, very good. Should have thought of both of them. Wolfe more so than anyone else, perhaps.

  13. SKZB, I think you do a great job of leaving a trail of little mysteries and then tying them up at the end. Fun to see it resolve.

  14. I liked the challenge of piecing together what world I’ve found myself involved in. The reader definitely hits the ground running in the Vlad Taltos books. It’s one of the benefits of first person – the narrator knows a lot more than the reader ever will, and it’s at their discretion how much they share with you. And one must always wonder /why/ the narrator is sharing this or that. The lack of information can be just as informative as the provision of it.

  15. I agree with all of the above. The best stories invite me into the world, rather than just explaining it to me. This is one of the greatest pleasures of reading your work and Zelazny’s. The only way I can think to describe the books that work for me is that they are written with a very casual confidence. The reader gets the impression that the author knows exactly what he or she is doing and so the trust is naturally given.

  16. And the worst thing is when an author gives the strong impression he or she is pulling a Zelazny/skzb sort of gambit, and then the book just never pays off, the mysteries remain unexplained, the apparent inconsistencies turn out to be real ones, and the plot falls to pieces.

    I won’t give examples here, but when this happens it’s actually depressing for the reader — or at least it is for me. Not only has the book turned out to be a total loss, but I will actually put it down feeling like the real world is just a little bit more ugly that day.

  17. When I first started studying your writing from a technical point of view (in order to improve my own), this ‘I tend to give information without sufficient explanation or context when, with a first-person or a close third-person point of view, it would be out of character for the narrator to describe it’ was the first thing I noticed. I was rather proud of the observation.

    That, more than anything, creates the impression that Draegara would continue to exist whether Taltos was there to observe it or Brust was there to write about him doing so.

  18. Recently I’ve read a couple books where the author has tried this, but without fulfilling the promise in the payoff. Except when that happens, though, I agree that it’s one of the great satisfactions of story — especially when done in such a way that the punch is telegraphed just well enough that the reader understands *as* it hits, rather than *after.* Ideally for me that happens just a paragraph or so before, so that the realization is still hitting when it becomes explicit on the page. It’s much more satisfying than the usual Sherlock Holmes school of things, where the joy is in the explication afterwards, where the reader could not possibly have predicted the outcome.

    Gene Wolfe manages this trick so well that I’ve read Shadow of the Torturer about a dozen times, and every time I get that first-blush new-novel joy and wonder.

  19. Heh. One type of critique I often get in my short stories is that I’ve left things insufficiently explained. “Well, I thought that this was maybe meaning [exactly what it meant], but I wasn’t sure, so it was distracting and confusing to never have it explained well enough.” I think this means I just don’t have the skill down yet, for doing that sort of cluing-in that lets the reader put the pieces together in a satisfying manner; just being opaque is as much a problem as hand-holding the reader through everything.

  20. “it would be out of character for the narrator to describe it, and that would knock me out of the story”

    It certainly knocks me out of a story. I HATE it when writers do it, especially in something I was up till then enjoying.

  21. “I think this means I just don’t have the skill down yet, for doing that sort of cluing-in that lets the reader put the pieces together in a satisfying manner; just being opaque is as much a problem as hand-holding the reader through everything.”

    Some readers just don’t like that.

    It’s very hard to write for everybody. Ideally you will get the kind of critiquer who is on the edge of your readership, who will tell you how to broaden the circle of people who like what you write, without needing you to give up what you’re doing.

    The only approach I’ve seen to attract people who like things to come clear as they think about it and also the people who like it all laid out, is to give the latter readers so much bling to enjoy that they don’t really care about the stuff that doesn’t make sense.

    Or possibly give the former puzzles to solve that don’t actually affect the story much, and the latter can ignore that the puzzles are there.

  22. J Thomas, given that the complaints about opaqueness came in rejection letters from markets I admired and wanted to sell to… I think that it really is my lack of skill at fault. I’m not trying to write for everyone, but I figure if the people who publish stuff I enjoy reading myself don’t like what I gave them, I’m the one who ought to be considering some shifts.

  23. “it would be out of character for the narrator to describe it, and that would knock me out of the story”

    Yeah, this is an important point. There’s nothing worse for narrative cohesion than a character who acts a certain way because they have private access to the author’s plot notes. Especially, there’s nothing worse than seeing the main characters act smarter than minor ones because the minor characters aren’t allowed to know anything that the author is keeping from the reader.

  24. This is a powerful technique because it mimics the way each of us actually experiences the world, especially as children. We see things but we do not understand them..yet. Eventually we do learn but never quite grasp everything. Thus is the illusion of a new,real world that is not our own created and sustained.

  25. Most extreme example I can think of for this is the Malazan series by Steven Erikson where the first book throws you into the middle of an imperial conflict involving gratuitous amounts of magic and gods and talking puppets and hundred-thousand-year-old skeletal zombie cavemen and that’s just the first 100 pages and none of it ever gets explained.

    I’m a huge Malazan fan but I think you’ve struck a good balance at least with the Taltos series!!

  26. Personaly I find that I dont mind that things arent explained as long as everything important got explained eventualy (even if that term/phrase is only explained in an appendix or a glossory) Most of the other unexplained details I normaly just ignore and assume that either they were not important or that they were details relating to a potential sequal. I also find that if an author tries to explain too much especialy in his/her first book in a series then I find that I will get bored and then never finish it.

  27. One of my favorite scenes is the end of Orca. But was there anything in Orca or in any previous by which I might have doped out Kiera’s identity? In fact, I have a question. When did you, not Vlad, you SKZB know Kiera’s identity?

  28. I can only assume he knew at least as far back as Yendi, where there’s one really big clue. But given Aliera’s discussion of reincarnation in Jhereg, I’d be surprised if he didn’t know even back then (explaining Kiera’s interest in helping young Vlad).

  29. I tend to think he (SKZB) always knew Kiera’s identity. I think the only thing he didn’t know was when and how to unveil that information to the rest of us. It’s funny when you re-read it, because you can see the exact point where Vlad figures it out.

  30. @BigMike: I think what did it for me was good old Buddy, about whom Vlad mentioned “he’s the only one not to make a mistake yet” or words to that effect. Kiera repeatedly mentions devoting time to get Buddy to accept her, presumably because…

    I find it interesting (after reading Dragon again this weekend) that Vlad speaks to his take on this reader confusion topic:

    “But here, I’ve left you, you odd, shiny contraption with presumed ears at both ends, confused about who and what I am, and generally what I’m on about. Okay. I’ll let you stay confused a little longer, and if you don’t trust me to clear everything up, then you can go hang. I’ve been paid.”

    Excerpt From: Brust, Steven. “Dragon.” Tom Doherty Associates, 2011-03-09. iBooks.
    This material may be protected by copyright.

  31. @Big Mike: “But was there anything in Orca or in any previous by which I might have doped out Kiera’s identity?”

    Yes, there was. About halfway through the book I was getting irritated by Kiera’s way of speaking – I thought she had started to sound too much like Aliera in some places. That’s where a reader needs confidence in the author. If I had really thought it was carelessness I would have chucked the story in the middle of it all. But I assumed there’d be a logical explanation at some point, and there definitely was.

    After a boring plot, having characters who all sound alike is probably the main reason I won’t finish a book.

  32. There are also some approaches I’ve seen for helping the readers keep up with the unexplained, including the multiple character viewpoints (Orca); what would be out of character for one figure might be natural for co-tagonist to explain. Also, the use of introductory excerpts from the lore of the setting (not quite like Taltos) to help readers get familiar with the milieu.

    That skzb can pull off all these narratives with such finesse just doesn’t seem fair sometimes.

  33. The second thing that delights readers is the unexpected. Curiously, surprises might seem to contradict the principle that the ending should derive from the plotline, but this is another of the terrible tightrope walks that all writers face. A misstep and down goes your plot. When the ending appears, it must seem like it had to happen, but before it appears, the readers shouldn’t already know what it is going to be. When the reader can see what’s coming, the story turns dull very rapidly.

  34. Pabkins: An ass? I don’t know.. But keep in mind that if too many readers fell into that type, Neil Gaiman wouldn’t have a career.

  35. I wonder what your thoughts about To Reign In Hell were (and are) from this point of view — making the reader work. The Miltonian basis can’t help but make readers think that the outcome is preordained, and indeed a sort of tragic inevitability seems to me to be a big part of the story.

  36. Which is weird since I didn’t actually know what would happen. But that’s a different sort of thing. With that one, instead of playing with what the reader doesn’t know, I got to play with what the reader thinks he knows. Opposite side of the coin, if you will.

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