Thursday, July 2, 2009


I've had the word TRUST on my blog post list for awhile now. But I was never sure what I wanted to say. Natalie's post helped guide me in the right direction. When someone begins reading your story, they may feel like this frog:

Natalie says it better than I can:

What does [not trusting your reader] mean? It boils down to not trusting that your audience will "get" what you're trying to give them. This leads to over explaining and repetition, which is annoying to a smart reader (and guess what, I hear most readers are smart people).

Backstory, Flashbacks, and Extraneous Scenes
Look at all of these closely. I recently did a post on my writing blog about how your reader might not care about most of this stuff. How do you present it? Is it ripping your reader out of the real story? You may care deeply about all of that information, but how much does your reader really need to know?

Scott wrote an excellent post on backstory here.

Most of the time, scaffolding is unnecessary. If your reader screams "I know!", you don't have to put a dialogue tag after it that says she screamed loudly.

He was just plain downright annoyed. He stomped his foot and clenched his fists.

When he looked deeply into her eyes, he whispered softly and lowered his voice.

The cool breeze flowed into the small room and rustled the lacy curtains until the stagnant air felt refreshed.

These are obvious examples, but I see this all the time. Adverbs. Extra adjectives, etc. Wordiness!

You. Don't. Need. To. Repeat. Things. Except for this phrase: You don't need to repeat things! This is my biggest problem. I like to pound things into my reader's head. Symbolism. Metaphors. Obvious things. A good example is from Natalie's post:

"That's not a good idea," he said. He seemed sure we shouldn't go in the cave.

Yes, and then I would probably repeat again in a later paragraph that he seemed sure we shouldn't go in the cave. The dialogue said it all. Just leave it at that.

Oh, Hate Them!
If one of your characters is a downright mean, ugly person. Let them be. Don't make excuses for them. Don't try and make them likable because you've read somewhere that all characters need to be likable.

In my first novel, one of my main POV characters is a terrible person. The other main POV character hates her. So why would I try and make her likable from the get go? I have no idea. But I did. And the character rings false.

These are a few things that hinder trust, which can lead to you looking like a poor storyteller, a weak writer, and someone who doesn't trust their own work and abilities. Trust me (haha), I'm barely learning all of this. I know I have a long way to go in strengthening my writing. I think a follow-up post is in order for things that help the reader trust. Scott? Davin? Any volunteers for a guest post?

Question For The Day: How important do you feel it is that your reader trusts you? Do you have any other examples of how a writer can hinder trust?

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. Yeah, I'm really bad about repeating thing because I don't want my reader to forget it when it comes into play in the end. Sigh. I suppose I should stop doing that. :) Great post!

  2. Michelle,

    Great post, this should spark an interesting discussion. I've had the same issues with too much backstory because I didn't trust my own characters' motivations. I had to convince myself.

    In some cases, the lack of self confidence was correct and I made material changes to the characters' actions and the way the story is told. In other cases it was unfounded and I realized that "less is more" did not make the motivation implausible, but rather it gave the reader more to think about. I will gladly admit that many of the discussion here regarding "what is literary" helped me in this realization.

  3. Guilty of quite a few of those - especially repeating and filler. I am trying to cull it out of the ms...little by little.

  4. I think it's very important that your reader trusts you. I totally agree that one of the worst ways you can lose their trust is by making things too obvious, by showing them things they want to discover for themselves or they have already discovered for themselves.

    I am guilty of this. I used to be a big fan of redundant and very obvious statements :D and sometimes it would take someone else reading over my work to point this out for me. It's a learning process.

    It seems like once you have to justify something, you're beginning to lose your readers trust. You're beginning to show them that your writing isn't strong enough or the characters aren't developed enough to SHOW the reader this. Instead we rely on TELLING, sometimes over and over again.

    Often writing feels like putting together a puzzle, with pieces that don't fit tossed in there. Then not only do you have to find the pieces that fit, you have to find the ones that don't and try to toss them out for good.

  5. I like what Cindy said about what happens when you try to justify something. It's like you're a bad liar when you have to keep building on something to prove your point. I confident person would just say it once.

    A mentor gave me some really wonderful advice that has helped me write in a way where I trust the reader. She said to write as if your reader were a better version of yourself. Make that reader just like you, except a little smarter, a little cooler, a little funnier, a little more sensitive. When you aim for that as your target audience, you'll realize that you are not better than your reader and that they can pick up what you have to say.

  6. I love this topic. I can see a lot of the "trust your reader to get it" in amateur (or simply rough first draft) writing that comes off a lot as telling instead of showing. The emotional examples you give here are exactly what I see.

    I recently got a new critique partner who caught this in my own writing. I had my characters thinking too much about liking each other, and her exact words were, "Trust your reader to get it." Invaluable advice! I'm so glad to have her as a CP.

    (Conversely, I see that sometimes I trust the reader a little too much—I have a few places where I wrote something that seems pretty patently obvious to me, and more than one CP marks it to say she doesn't understand.)

  7. To sort of echo what Davin said, I imagine readers as very intelligent and very easily bored. I believe I stole that from Stephen King, actually. Yes, we have to trust our readers, but they have to trust us, which means that we can't leave anything important out, and we have to strive for clarity.

    It's important that writers be bold, assertive like Cindy and Davin say. You can't apologize for/justify things in your book. You have to mean them and they have to matter. You have to convince your readers that they want to take a journey with you, and prove that you are competent enough to take them on the journey.

    Which means that we have to learn to trust ourselves and hone our writerly instincts so that they are trustworthy.

  8. I catch myself doing the repetition thing. Of course, I do that when I speak also. So I try to be conscious of it in my writing. It is also why I thank my lucky stars for awesome crit buddies. They catch all the little repeats that escape my radar :)

  9. "You can't apologize for/justify things in your book."

    I saw someone use a character to do this once. It didn't work for me.

  10. Great topic! I've been finding more and more places where I add unnecessary dialogue tags, and have been hacking at them for a week or so now.

    Excellent point that we have to strive to make our writing worthy of the readers' trust as well as trusting them to keep up.

  11. Maybe people are picking up this "not trusting the reader" thing from Hollywood. One of my pet peeves about Disney's English soundtrack for "Spirited Away" is that they explain away all the mysterious parts before you even have a chance to muse over them. In particular, they have Chihiro saying, "Oh Haku is a dragon," right at the first hint of it instead of coming to that realization gradually like in the Japanese soundtrack.

    For all that, I do find those problems creeping into my own work. I am all for plunging into a story without giving any backstory, and yet, when I write my own story, I end up spending what seems to me an awfully long time in what looks like nothing more than backstory. In this case, I have a reason for it, but will my readers get it? Should I trust them to get it? Trusting your reader isn't as simple as you might think.

    The other thing I would like to emphasize is variation. I prefer unadorned dialog, but sometimes I add extra descriptors when it feels like it might help build the effect. Sometimes, I find myself agonizing over whether I've put in too many words, but I think you can get away with more in some places if you put less in other places. In fact I would even say good writing, like good painting, requires this kind of contrast in style.


  12. I agree you don't have to repeat things. I mean, why repeat? It's just silly to be so repetitive.

    Ok, that's my very lame attempt at humor. Hey -- I admited it was lame.

    Good discussion going on here, though. I think it comes back to the fact that readers like to feel smart. They like to think they've figured things out..and then they love when the plot twists and they are wrong. That's always a fun read for me.

  13. I have a weakness for adding in too many adjectives, but I've read that one in a number of places so that's something I've been working on. One way to put it is this: whenever possible, make the reader understand the tone simply with the words the character speaks. Only when it's NOT evident do you need to add in descriptive language.

    A lot of my dialogue now is pretty barebones.

    Also, I come from a more scholarly background so when I'm editing I totally understand the repetition problem. One of my profs said that you should look at each paragraph and decided if it advances your thesis (or, in fiction, the plot/narrative). If it's not absolutely essential, strip it out.

    Then again, sometimes it's easier to cut things than add them in later. So, err on the side of being wordy in the first draft. You can always trim it down later.

  14. Thought-provoking post. I like what Scott added about clarity. I think if we had clarity the first time we mentioned something, we wouldn't need to keep repeating it to be sure the reader "gets it."
    So that's the trick to go back line-by-line to check for clarity.
    In crit group, if several people mark a passage or line, especially if they make different assumptions about why it doesn't work,then it is obviously not clear. Thanks for posting this.

  15. I also think it's important that a writer be trustworthy and not use plot manipulation or sentimentality. You can have an unreliable narrator, but you can't be an unreliable writer: your story has to be internally consistent, and you can't cheat with plot or characters.

  16. I love this post. *she raises hand* Repeater here and lover of the word was.
    I like what Davin's mentor told him. Wise words! :)

  17. Sometimes you do need to remind the reader, but not often. I always remember the 1 + 1 = 1/2 rule. Make sure if you're going to say it twice, you say it in a different manner and much later than the first time so it flashes a lightbulb on rather than fire in your reader's eyes.

    Suspending disbelief sorta falls into the trust category too. Readers won't trust you if they don't believe what you're trying to tell them.

  18. Trust is HUGE! And once it's lost, it's nearly impossible to regain. When I finish a book that I really like, the first thing I do is research whatever else that author has written. Eight times out of ten, the other books aren't what I expected. It's sort of like dating isn't it? One stupid phrase and the romance is gone.

  19. Interesting topic. I know all those things have been said over and over again, but I've never related them to trust. Now you've got me thinking....

  20. I totally need to learn to trust my readers. I repeat stuff to make sure, and it then sticks out like a sore thumb!

  21. When I saw the pic at the top of your post I thought the frog was supposed to be the writer, because there is definitely the feeling of being between some potentially very sharp teeth when I put my work out there.

    I guess that means that trust has to be a two-way street between both the writer and the reader.

  22. This is a timely post. I'm currently dealing with what I consider an "Extraneous Scene". I got into trying to see a day in the life of my character, but it's so unrelated to what happens later that I am really worried about keeping it in the book.

  23. B.J: Yeah, I have worked on stopping it, too. We just get so worried that our brilliance will be overlooked!

    Rick: I am so glad to see that the literary posts have helped you! They have helped me a lot, too. Getting everybody's feedback is amazing. The Less Is More idea is more helpful than I realized. I don't want to be too sparse, but at the same time, adding too much is just so counterproductive.

    Joyce: Little by little, yep! It's impossible to do quickly.

    Cindy: I like redundant and obvious statements, but they only work rarely. Sometimes it's a style, I've found. Puzzle!!! That's a great analogy. And I usually hate puzzles, so what am I doing? Haha.

    Davin: I think confidence has everything to do with this issue. Good point! I like that idea of writing to a better version of yourself. I often ask myself who I'm writing to, and it's usually me... but thinking of it in the exact terms you've stated, I think I'd solve this trust issue just a little more.

    Jordan: Ah yes, this can go the other way too! Trusting too much can just make things confusing. It depends on how sparse your style is. If it's very sparse, the reader will already be used to figuring things out. But if you've expertly led them along, and then all the sudden you expect them to "get" something without doing it right, well, that's a problem. So good point!

    Scott: I love the way you say that you can't apologize or justify things in your book. That is so true, and something I'm doing all the time. If I even FEEL like justifying something, I've gone in the wrong direction. Instead, I should be able to say - no, that's here... written RIGHT here... Guess you missed it. That's when the reader isn't trustworthy, when the skip over stuff. Sloppy reading, haha. It goes both ways.

    Michelle: We ALL repeat a ton when we speak and think. It's natural. And I think that's why we do it in our writing.

    Justus: Ah, yes, I've seen those kinds of characters before. I don't see it working, either!

    Rebecca: Yes, it does go both ways! I agree about the dialogue tags. With practice, I'm getting much better.

    wisewit: You use a key word here for me: agonizing! I'm always agonizing over whether or not I've used the right amount of words, if I'm trusting enough or not enough. I think a part of this trust thing is trusting OURSELVES, too. Confidence plays a huge role into this. Confidence in our abilities, our reader, our story.

    Yes, Hollywood has messed up a lot of things for us writers. I could go on and on about that!

  24. Tess: Haha. Well, I'm laughing at the lame joke. It's early. Readers DO like to feel smart, I agree! I hate books that make me feel dumb, which is why avoid certain genres. I won't name them, by any means.

    Lord Azriah: I agree with your point about dialogue. Tone has a lot to do with things. Dialogue is something I struggle with a lot. Setting and character play into that more than I realize, too, which might be why your dialogue is barebones? Combine it all together and it balances out.

    Yes, wordy first drafts are necessary for me. It's where I explore things. And then I trim later. Or, in my case this time around, I just rewrite the whole thing and leave all the unnecessary stuff out.

    Tricia: Clarity is key! I agree that it's best to have several people point out one thing. That way you know it's not working. Just one opinion doesn't work most of the time.

    Scott: I agree with your point about the narrator and the writer. That's spot on. I'm thinkin' you should write a post on that.

    Robyn: Ah, the evil was word. Well, I like the word was. I just don't like it where it doesn't belong. Haha.

    Eileen: That's an interesting rule I haven't heard of before! Thanks for pointing it out.

    And suspending disbelief is HUGE. If I have a reader who keeps asking questions about things that are just obviously fiction, I have to remember they're not being a very trustful reader.

    Amy: Oh, wow! So do you have a favorite author is consistent in every book?

    Elana: Yes, that's the conclusion I came to. All of these things we read about over and over really do tie back into trust.

    PJ: I think your first book was spot on. Not too much repetition there!

    Kate: Haha, it could go both ways, that's for sure. I can totally see myself as that frog in a reader's jaws.

    Crimey: Oh, I'm glad you came over to read this, then! I'm thinking you probably don't need that scene... I usually get annoyed by scenes like that. The everyday life stuff should be woven into the story by other means.

  25. Oh yes! I've been guilty of hammering info over the reader's head! I'm in recovery, thank goodness.

    Unfortunately, in romance, the two main characters--hero and heroine--have to be likable or the editor won't buy the book. So, I walk a tight line trying to balance their flaws with their strengths. Wish I had the magic formula!

    Happy Fourth of July!

  26. I have a great rule for this. When a first person narrator withholds information from the reader she loses the reader's trust. If you're telling the story in first person the narrator must lay everything out for the reader. Everything she knows. There can be no mystery about what the narrator is thinking or the reader will not trust the narrator. Did I repeat that enough? Should I say it one more time? Heehee?

  27. Trust in an author, for me, comes with the belief that the person has a story to tell and can tell it well. I think that I, and readers who are not writers, are a lot less concerned about the small stuff. I don't mind a bit of repetition if it adds to the orality of the writing. Great public speakers make use of artful repetition. There's repeating info so people will get the content, but then there's using repetiton because it is a part of our voice and our rhythm. Some day I will do a post on repetition and great speakers. It can be powerful! I know you and everybody knows that, but how easily we forget that rhythm and repetition is a tool for developing theme.

  28. Jill: A magic formula would be nice! I read a book recently where the main character really was not that great of a guy. But the point of the book was to show his change, and it worked beautifully. Sometimes, I think, it's about the journey, not the character.

    Lois: How does that work with 3rd person POV? Because I'm constantly withholding things from my readers. Sometimes 3rd person can feel like 1st person, so I suppose in that case it would be a fine line with keeping information hidden.

    Dave: Oh, I understand what you're saying. I'm a poet and know how important repetition is - effective repetition. In this post, I'm mostly speaking about repetition that the reader pushes into the story because they don't think the reader would get it otherwise. Great thoughts! This might inspire another post. We'll see who gets to it first, haha. :D

  29. A mentor gave me some really wonderful advice that has helped me write in a way where I trust the reader. She said to write as if your reader were a better version of yourself.

    I like this advice. I'm going to try it.

  30. Tara, I loved that too. Something great to start from!

  31. It is interesting to me that you titled this post "Trust" instead of "Doubt" because I can now see that NOT trusting the reader to understand our writing is the cause of TOO much repetition.

  32. Marty: Oh, good point. It really should be titled Doubt! This post really is about doubting instead of trusting. I'd like to do a follow up post soon about actual TRUST. Maybe I should title it DOUBT. :D


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