Your Reader is Smarter than You
Jack Bickam, a writer of fiction, quoted the above from a newsroom sign, somewhere, sometime. A warning to reporters to remember that readers are smarter than they are. A good thing for writers of any kind to keep in mind.
Now, I know that you would never condescend in this way. You’re not that kind of person. Would you? You can do it without meaning to.
Ways you don’t treat your readers as smarter
Too much background
As I’ve discussed in Exposition, giving the reader a lot of background before the real action starts slows down the forward motion of the story. It can also accidentally send the message that you think the reader is too stupid to pick up what’s going on unless you spell it out for him. But he can do very well even with a minimal amount of information. In fact, it can be intriguing. Who’s talking? What’s going on? Why did she say that? Readers can tolerate not only being puzzled but positively enjoy it. So enthrall rather than underrate.
Showing off your expertise
A related thing but it can happen at any point in the plot. I paraphrase an actual amateur writer’s approach.
“This dishonors my family!” he shouted. “I must have revenge!” He pulled out a scimitar, which is a short sword with a curved blade, used originally in Eastern countries.
Exactly the wrong time to drop in a piece of research. It can kick your reader right out of the story. If you really, really think your readers don’t know what a scimitar is and cannot get it from the context, introduce the term sometime earlier.
Telling them how to interpret your story
You want to get your message across. Of course you do. But it is both clunky and insulting to write:
This is a story of hope. Despite almost insurmountable odds, Ryan will triumph, showing the world that no disability can prevent his true spirit shining through.
This is what you want your reader to conclude (hopefully with less hackneyed words) once she has read your compelling tale of your protagonist’s travails and final triumph. Again, show don’t tell.
Driving the point home
Some writers think they can sneak in the message by one of the characters articulating it.
Brenda wiped a tear away. “It’s hard to believe Ryan could accomplish that with all his challenges.”
Gary nodded. “He’s an example of the unconquerable human spirit.”
Even if you write it more elegantly than this bit, you’re still trying to give the reader the ‘correct’ conclusion. The right one is the one the reader comes up with himself.
Trying to get away with something
You can run into a plot point which is needed but doesn’t fit with what has gone before. Yes, she’s a bitch but if she doesn’t volunteer at the shelter, she won’t meet Jake. Or The floor has to collapse. Otherwise, how do I get them to the underground cave?
The temptation is to motor along with what you need for the plot, hoping that your readers won’t notice. News. They do with annoying frequency. Whenever I have tried an easy way out, someone invariably says, “But wouldn’t they feel that the floor wasn’t solid as soon as they stepped on it?”
The answer is to go back and fix the bits inconsistent with where you now want to go in the action. A nuisance, I know, but you often get a better plot if you do.
It is easy to inadvertently give the impression you think you’re smarter than your readers. You can avoid it by being alert to unintentional slips.