The Startling Effect of Too Much Clarity in a Story

The Surprising Effect of Too Much Clarity in a Story

This week’s video warns against the temptation to eliminate all subtlety and ambiguity.

Video Transcript:

Did you know that there’s such a thing as an author being too clear? Most of the time, we’re worrying our heads off to ensure our stories are clear enough. One of my first questions to beta readers and critique partners is always, “Were you ever confused?” Because we really, really don’t want our readers to be confused. A story that doesn’t make sense is a story that’s gonna be ditched if for no other reason than that’s it’s simply too difficult for readers to bother slogging through the murk.

So it’s easy for us to go all paranoid and start thinking we need to spell out every little thing. Especially if we’re writing a story set in a foreign milieu—a different country, a different time, or just a super-detailed subculture such as the military—we’re going to have readers who are unfamiliar with what we’re talking about. So we go to some trouble to spell it out. But this is where the surprising effect of too much clarity can become a problem.

As much as readers appreciate clarity, they also like to be treated like intelligent adults. Particularly if they already have some grasp of your subject matter—and for every ignorant reader, there will be an educated one—they’re going to want the satisfaction of seeing their own knowledge in action.

For example, I recently read a short science fiction story that employed a good bit of nautical terminology. As someone who loves historical naval stories, of the ilk of Aubrey/Maturin and Horatio Hornblower, I found this very satisfying. What I didn’t find so satisfying was that every one of these terms was explained to the reader, which severely mitigated my own pleasure at having recognized the terms and their meanings. This is why authors must walk the line of making foreign concepts clear from the context, for readers who aren’t in the know, without talking down to readers who are already familiar with the subject.

Tell me your opinion: How do you keep from talking down to readers?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. You are right, we are so worried about being clear that we never think the coin is two-faced (as we can see it when we read). It is really anoying when you feel like asking the writer: do you think I´m stupid? Thanks for the post!

  2. I know exactly what you’re talking about. My books involve several languages, ancient culture, philosophy, art – a whole cadre of subjects that are as familiar to me as breathing. How do I take the reader on the journey with me without sounding like a tour guide? I pretty much have defined my audience as the intelligent sensual reader. But I have a conscious intention to entertain first and sneak the education in the side door. My criteria? I don’t want the reader to say, “Gee, Is there going to be a test?” 🙂

  3. @Meryl: I find it’s often useful to be blunt in the first draft. Get all the info out there on the page, then pull back and reevaluate what’s really necessary.

    @Sandra: I adore books that make me pedal a little bit to keep up – not enough so I have no idea what’s going on, but just enough that I feel smart for keeping up. 😉

  4. I’m having this problem right now because I’m writing a hacker who delves into a database simply because the security hole is there and she finds dangerous information, but having already toned down the lingo as much as I can without just hand-waving it (oh she’s just “good at computers”), my beta reader still said she was skimming that part. Blergh!

  5. Betas are the boss. Nothing beats a little objective input for helping us find this necessary balance.

  6. This is definitely a tricky balance to strike. Thanks for the advice.

  7. I’ve been told that I’m good at teaching things to people.. and I guess it reflects in my writing, because, at least in my initial drafts, every other paragraph is an explanation of something I’ve introduced into the story.
    For example, when I was trying to write a short sci-fi story a couple months back, it ended up sounding more like a technical manual on spacecraft and warp flight. 😉

    I think that’s one of the main reasons I’ve been most successful with writing westerns. Because nearly everyone knows enough about the old west to understand a story based on that era, I don’t have to explain anything.

  8. @Laura: It’s tricky because it’s so subjective. Not only is every book’s balance difference, but not all readers, familiarity with the subject aside, will view the optimal balance in the same way. We’re never going to get it perfect, but the more aware we are of the need for it, the closer we’ll come to achieving it.

    @Gideon: Some subjects definitely require less explaining than others. I researched less for my western novel than any of the others.

  9. Spot on!

  10. Like Laura said, it’s a tricky balance. In an effort not to insult the reader, too little info is bad, but too much is bad as well. I’m not sure I’ve found that perfect balance yet.

  11. Honestly, I don’t think any of us ever find the balance. We’re always going to have some readers who wish we’d spell it out plainer and others who wish we’d use a little more subtlety. My rule of thumb is always, “If I’m an objective reader reading this book, what would *I* want to see?”

  12. I’m fighting this problem in my current work, which is a sci-fi involving four-dimensional geometry. I’m constantly asking myself, “What is the very minimum that the reader would need to get the point of the story?”

  13. Then you’re asking yourself the right question. And if you get it wrong originally, you have the opportunity to run it by beta readers and get their input on a better balance.

  14. Absolutely true! It is one of the reasons I love the Aubrey / Maturin series as well. For once I can read a book that doesn’t treat me like a lubber (or isn’t written by a lubber).

  15. My favorite series ever! O’Brian is a genius, not least because he seamlessly presents info a way that gives you what you need without ever talking down to either you or the characters.

  16. This is brilliant: [T]hey’re going to want the satisfaction of seeing their own knowledge in action.

    I’m not being facetious when I say that, phrased precisely the way you phrased it, it’s a genius concept. It’s simple but significant. Writers should never forget it.

  17. One of the key, but often overlooked, facets of a successful story is the fact that it’s ultimately a partnership between writer and reader. We give them the tools; they build it in their imaginations. No two readers will envision a story in the same way. They won’t even envision it in the same way as the author. That’s why we have to look at storytelling as, not so much telling the reader every detail, as giving him just enough details to allow his own imagination to take off.

    • My work-in-progress is set primarily in the 1830s. I will keep this great post in mind as I weave in details of 1830s life. Those details have to provide flavor without becoming the entire menu.

  18. Other good examples of authors who teach or explain seamlessly are Leon Uris, who used history and truth as a backdrop to his novels without talking down as he folded them in, and Colleen McCullough, who describes everything from the Catholic church to Australian farm life to sheep shearing in THE THORN BIRDS in a conversational, of-course-you-know this way.

  19. Someone mentioned Patrick O’Brian in a previous comment. I would add C.S. Forester and Orson Scott Card among so many other brilliant authors.

  20. Exactly. I wouldn’t afraid of dumping all your info into the first draft, since you can always take it out later. But you may also find the best organic feel for which details are needed and which aren’t simply by allowing yourself to assume readers understand as much as you do. From there, with the help of some beta readers, you can figure out which areas really do need more explanation.

  21. While writing the first draft of my now-shelved manuscript, I did make a lot of things clear but on subsequent rewrites, I took them out to create room for ambiguity. I guess it helps first-time authors to know where they are going…sometimes. Or what do you think?

  22. Absolutely. Sometimes we just have to get all the info out of systems to help *us* figure out where we’re going. We can always cut or add later, as necessary.

  23. This subject is one of my flaws, and as a result, my sentences are often too wordy as I’m explaining every single thing! When I read them back they just sound ridiculous. One word: Cut.

  24. I often find it helpful (not to mention therapeutic) to dump all my info, whether it’s research or backstory, into the first draft. Once I’ve gotten it out of my system, I then go back and objectively cut what isn’t necessary.

  25. Hi K.M.
    I think authors need to be aware of that fine balance between too much confusion and too much clarity. Whenever I write a scene I always try to leave a few subtle hints and clues so the reader can have a go at working things out for themselves. But it’s hard to know if those clues are read with their purpose behind them.

  26. Ultimately, only beta readers can tell us if we’re on track with the amount of info we’re sharing. By ourselves, we’re far too un-objective, since we not only see the big picture, but we know exactly what we’re trying to achieve in each scene.

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