Just Enough Light to See: How to Keep Your Story Moving
June 3, 2020 § 14 Comments
By Michael Lewis
There is a fine line between just enough and too much information. The trouble begins with the simple urge to over-explain—just a few details here, one metaphor too many there. This slippery slope ends when the reader discovers you are not giving them credit to figure things out on their own. Once the bond of trust between you and your reader starts to decay, it’s all over. Your story loses its wheels and ends up abandoned on the side of the road.
E. L. Doctorow famously wrote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” The analogy is meant to inspire the writer who may not know exactly where their story is headed. I think it also serves nicely as a reminder of just how much to share with the reader.
Let’s stay with the road analogy.
The reader assumes the road of our story will traverse some flat land, mountains and valleys, and hopefully encounter some hidden turns or dead ends along the way. There will be intersections in the narrative and the reader will need enough information to guess whether to turn right, left, or keep going straight. Sometimes either direction will get the reader to the same point, though one route might take less time, the other perhaps more scenic. These are our artistic choices to make and, done properly, will nudge different readers in different directions. Some will keep right on going and not even consider turning. All of these options are viable as long as everyone ends up at Point B. This is one of the joys of writing—to hint at what lies ahead so the reader has something to which they may look forward. Provide the essential information but parcel it out. Think of it as shrewd generosity.
Let your readers make connections on their own and try not to beat them over the head with your cleverness. Be subtle. Even if your writing is delicate, delicacy is not always subtlety. Don’t advertise your prowess. In a novel, advertisements of this sort take up precious space that could otherwise be used for something interesting or useful. In Travels With Charlie: In Search of America, Steinbeck quips about the phenomenon of billboards and highways, writing, “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” Learn to couch your cleverness. Let the reader’s light bulb go on a sentence or two after you give them the hint. If they miss the turn they can always circle back.
Another way to think about it.
Imagine the reader is in the car with you. Or better yet, give them their own car. Do that in the first chapter. Give them the keys, fill it up with gas, and make that contract with them that will become their road map. It has sketchy details at first, but the further they travel the more information they will mentally input onto their map. They may or may not know they are driving to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They only know they are heading north and west to begin with. This is enough to get them started. Maybe give them an idea how long the trip might be so they can begin to plan. Who is riding with them? Always good to know.
A paragraph is its own concise set of directions with opportunities to engage the reader on every page—the sentence, tighter yet. It is easy to get so caught up in the way a sentence or paragraph sounds, how they make us feel, i.e., style, tone, that we completely forget to give the reader space to interpret. Remember, our readers have brought things with them on this trip—a cooler full of ideas, preconceptions, comparisons, reasoning skills, bias, not to mention their needs and desires as a reader, their demands. And sometimes they want to reach into that cooler and be surprised. Trust your reader and be good to them. This is probably not their first time behind the wheel and they have taken road trips before.
One hazard to look out for is repetition. It makes the reader want to nod off and who knows where they will end up. Look over your paragraphs and sentences. Are there phrases that can be cut? Beginning writers will frequently describe something a couple different ways, often within the same sentence, simply because they like the way it sounds. I have certainly been guilty of this. The reader doesn’t need both. Choose one, then write the other one down in your notebook in a section called Analogies, or Nice Phrases, or whatever. That’s where it belongs. You can even group them by subject or character. Be creative…and organized. You can use it down the road with no strings attached.
Rules of the road.
Travel light. If you’re not sure you need it, you probably don’t.
Trust your instincts.
Act on your instincts!
Don’t get sidetracked by all the pretty little things.
Pay attention. Always.
Don’t leave your reader stranded for long. They will find another ride and hang with you if you are lucky, but they may just as easily turn around and go home. You have invited them on this journey and are asking them, in Doctorow’s words, to make the whole trip with you. So pay attention and for the most part, keep the car on the road.
Happy writing and don’t forget to turn your lights on.
Michael Lewis daydreams and writes from his home in Indiana where he finds inspiration walking the open fields and low hills of the Wabash River Valley. He is currently at work on his first novel.