10 Ways Writers Treat their Readers like Idiots
Today we're talking about all the ways writers treat their readers like idiots. This isn't something I see a lot of writers talking about, but I do see a lot of readers complaining about it. You're reading a book, just flipping through the chapters, and you suddenly have to pause and say, “Really? You didn't think I could figure that out on my own?”
Basically, when writers treat their readers like idiots, they over-explain. They format their narrative and dialogue in a way to spell out the finer details when it isn't really necessary. This is usually out of fear. As writers, we worry, “What if they don't get it?” And the truth is, some readers won't get it. Not everyone has graduated past Dr. Seuss. But to put it bluntly, when you write for a dumbed-down audience, you create a dumbed-down book. That's why it's a good idea to write under the assumption that your readers are capable and competent enough to understand context clues.
Thus, I am breaking down the ten ways writers treat their readers like idiots, and how to avoid this issue. I know it's hard but trusting your readers goes a long way in building audience loyalty.
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Number 1: Definitions
If you're writing something like fantasy or sci-fi, you may have invented a term for something futuristic or magical, and thus you have to define it. But if you're using existing terms in unoriginal ways, you don't have to define them for your audience. For example, I recently read a fantasy book that heavily relied on rituals. Not only did we receive a two-page definition of what a ritual was, but we were reminded of this definition every single time a ritual occurred thereafter. I also read a sci-fi novel where the setting was mostly terraformed, and once again we received a definition of terraforming. Trust that your readers know what a ritual or terraforming is. And if they don't know those words, trust that they have access to the dictionary app. Don't waste precious pages turning your book into an encyclopedia. All it does is disrupt the flow and slow down the pace.
Number 2: “As You Know…”
We've all read this before. You're in the middle of the book and the character breaks the flow of the scene to say, “Well, as you know...” They then proceed to dump a ton of exposition about the world, or the history of the world, exclusively for the benefit of the reader. Typically, the information laid out is necessary for the reader to continue to understand the story. The problem is the character they're speaking to is already aware of this information. That's literally why they said, “As you know.”
This disrupts immersion in the story. Readers are immediately aware that you're giving this information to them, which makes it seem like the characters aren't real. This is not to say you should never provide exposition; it definitely has its place, especially in stories with complex worlds. But rather than having a character regurgitate this information to another character who's already in the know, find another way to communicate it. This can include educating a character who isn't aware or providing exposition in the narrative.
Number 3: Explicitly Stating the Theme
A theme is an idea that is conveyed through a piece of work. It's the underlying feeling or tone of the novel. It's the message you'll read between the lines. The entire point of a theme is it’s supposed to be suggested, and subtle. Readers who are into that sort of thing are supposed to try and figure it out. Themes are not supposed to be explicitly stated, or worse–repeated. That jumps from being thematic to preaching.
“But Jennaaa! How will readers get the theme if I don't explicitly state it to them?”
Having all your readers get the theme shouldn't be your goal in the first place. Not everyone reads for themes and symbols. A lot of people read just to have a good time. It's perfectly fine if your work contains an idea or message that you want to convey, but you can't convince all of your readers to absorb your story through the same lens. And when you shove a theme into readers' faces, everyone universally hates it. It feels forced, uncomfortable, and self-righteous. Instead, write your themes subtly and appropriately as intended. Readers who are interested in thematic content will appreciate this, and hopefully pick up on the message. And if they don't, that's fine too.
Number 4: The Mid Story Recap
This is something a lot of writers are tempted to do, especially if they're writing a lengthier novel. They want to remind readers about situations that occurred earlier in the novel, usually through some kind of dialogue recap the character explains the earlier events to another character, thus reminding readers in the process. Now there are some situations where a recap might be necessary. This is common if you're revealing a plot twist with very subtle hints. You might need to point out those hints later on so readers realize that they were there. This is also common if you're writing a sequel; you might need to provide a very brief recap toward the beginning of the book so readers are up to speed. But more often than not, there's no need to recap events from within the same book, especially if those events were impactful. Readers will remember a character's death, they'll remember a fight, they’ll remember a shocking reveal. You wrote these events to be engaging, and thus they should stick in the reader's mind.
Number 5: Repetition
This is usually in regard to smaller details like a character's eye color, the appearance of a setting, or the meaning behind a sacred tree. Sometimes writers feel the need to repeat these details over and over again. Maybe it's because they think readers will forget, or maybe they're being self-indulgent. They just really love that sacred tree. And it's okay to mention these things a few times. Maybe your characters are having a romantic moment, so their love interest’s eye color is especially captivating. But if you wax poetic about a character's sea-green eyes five times in a single chapter, readers are gonna get annoyed. We get it, they’re green! Save the repetition for when it brings the most impact to a scene or description. Otherwise, trust that readers remember the details, and move on.
Number 6: Too Many Dialogue Tags
A lot of us were taught in grade school that every single piece of dialogue has to have a dialogue tag.
“How are you?” Jenna said.
“I'm fine,” Buttercup said. “How are you?” Buttercup asked.
“I'm okay,” Jenna said. “I'd be better if we stopped repeating who the fuck is talking,” Jenna added.
You may be able to tell why this is an issue, based on this example. Too many dialogue tags read as repetitive. It slows down the pace of the conversation, which makes it boring. When it comes to tags, the rule of thumb is to only use a dialogue tag if you need to make it clear who is speaking. Sometimes the dialogue is surrounded by narrative, and that narrative already makes it clear who is speaking. For example:
Jenna raised her eyebrows and said, “How do I really know if you're wearing underwear?”
In this case, you can delete the dialogue tag because the narrative makes it clear who is speaking.
You could instead write: Jenna raised her eyebrows. “How do I really know if you're wearing underwear?”
Additionally, if only two people are speaking, it's gonna be extra clear who was speaking at any given time because usually, their dialogue is going to be one after the next, after the next, after the next. In this case, a dialogue tag should be minimal, and only used for clarity and flow.
Number 7: The World-Building Info Dump
You guys already know what this is, especially if you read sci-fi or fantasy. Readers are given a massive info dump about the story's world, usually toward the beginning of the novel. Because what better way to start an adventure than to give a geography lesson? This is something I've talked about in a lot of videos, so I'll try not to be redundant. When world-building it's important to provide information as it becomes necessary. An info dump out of nowhere is just going to slow the pace and make readers think that you don't trust their prowess. You don't need a lengthy explanation about the world's climate. Instead, readers will figure that out when you're describing the characters trudging through snow. When it comes to world dumps, readers will either assume you are a boring rambler, or that you think they're stupid, and neither of those things are good.
Number 8: Self-Praise
Sometimes writers will create a character, scene, or line of dialogue that they're super proud of. And that's great. You should absolutely be proud of your writing. It's not so great to gloat about said pride in the story itself. I once read a book that included a song that one of the characters wrote. After revealing the lyrics, there was a hefty paragraph of narrative all about how beautiful, poetic, and perfectly written the song lyrics were. I've also read plenty of books where a character says something that's supposed to be funny or witty, and then we are given a ton of narrative afterward, explaining, “Wow, look at this character's incomparable humor and charm!”
It's totally fine to congratulate a character's songwriting skills or their humor, but you don't wanna go ham on the praise because it's going to read as self-congratulatory. You wrote the song, you wrote that funny line. It stops feeling like a character reaction and starts feeling like you're patting yourself on the back. Again, it comes across as though you don't trust that the reader will appreciate the song or the joke, so you're reminding them to do so just in case. It's okay to acknowledge a character's feelings regarding a grand gesture. Just be sure not to throw your own pride into the mix.
Number 9: Telling
Showing is when you illustrate a scene, concept, or description to your readers using your five senses. Telling is when you state something to the reader as if it is an explicit fact. Both of these are utilized in fiction all the time, but typically telling should be utilized less than showing. And it's a mistake to utilize telling if you're trying to convince the reader of an opinion, as opposed to stating an objective fact.
An example of this would be telling the reader, “The princess was beautiful.” This isn’t immersive; you're giving an opinion rather than stating a fact. In this case, showing the princess’s beauty by describing her appearance will do a whole lot more to transport the reader. Plus it should probably illustrate the opinion you're already trying to get across.
If you utilize too much telling on opinion-based situations, readers are going to assume that you don't trust them to get what you're giving. A description of her glistening brown skin should be more than enough to let readers know that her skincare routine is on point. A description of her hauntingly dark eyes is more than enough to let us know that her gaze is captivating. Allow readers to become immersed in the details and trust that they can read between the lines.
Number 10: The Show, Then Tell
This is when you provide those amazing show details, but then immediately follow it up with a line or two of tell, so that you can tell the readers how they are supposed to interpret the show. If that makes sense. Say the love interest cocks his eyebrow, smirks, and delivers a line of dialogue that is totally swoon-worthy. That right there is show. Then the following line of narrative says, “He behaved in a suave and charming manner.” That right there was tell, and we already knew that, because you showed it.
Now there are exceptions to every rule, and in this case, the exception is character perspective. If you are showing the sexiness of a particular character through their cocked eyebrow, their smirk, and their swoon-worthy line of dialogue, it’s totally fine to follow it up with a line of narrative that says something like, “Goddammit, he's fucking hot.” There's personality in that sentence, and we can tell that's the character's reaction to what happened. This is the character's unfiltered opinion, rather than the author's. So in this case, you're not treating the reader like they're stupid. You're just letting them know that this character has a major boner for this beefcake.
But if every time you show a character, situation, or scene and then tell the same character, situation, or scene to the reader, they’re gonna take it as though you're covering your bases. You're showing for the smart folks, and telling for the dummies. Listen, not everyone is gonna get what you write, and that's okay. The human perspective is wide and varied. But it's better to err on the side of trusting your reader, rather than spoon-feeding them like a toddler. If something doesn't make sense or comes across incorrectly, trust that your beta readers will let you know and you can fix it then. But for now, allow the showing to speak for you. Don't feel like you have to force-feed your readers. They love to read books, they've probably read a ton, and they can probably understand what you're putting down.
So that's all I've got for you today!
Try not to annoy the crap out of your readers by treating them like they've got beans for brains. Don't make these mistakes, and if you have, allow this blog post to help you.
Have you made any of the mistakes on this list? Let me know how you fixed them in the comments below.
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