Cullen’s Whiplash Writing Recommendations: Wait, Who’s Telling the Story?

This is going to be one of those “Cullen notices a pattern and launches a textual crusade against it” posts, just be aware of that going in. Things may get caustic. Or, er, moreso.

I’ve noticed a bit of a trend in writing advice from recent years. Not so much in academic circles or stemming from the writers who travel them: this is one of those things that you filthy amateurs have conjured up which I need to swat down. I’m joking. Look, I’ve been awake forty minutes as of this line. My wit is still charging to full power. Anyway, I’ve seen variations on the following line appearing a lot recently and I felt I ought to address it. In writing advice pieces I’ve seen more and more of, “Leave things open so the readers imagine things for themselves.” This is bad advice for at least three reasons. Yes, I could find more, but I told you it’s early.

Firstly, the readers are not the writer. This does not mean they do not know what they want, nor indeed that they aren’t capable of writing it. See also: you’re not special and dust is all you’ll be in a hundred years. That said, the readers are not writing your story. That’s your job. I hope you don’t actually need to be reminded of that, but there it is anyway. Perhaps this is a unique perspective on my part, but I don’t open up a book looking for the author to ‘let me imagine things’. That kind of effort has to be earned. 

Do not, on the first page of your fantasy epic, provide me with an empty canvas and tell me to paint on it. If I’m supposed to imagine everything, I’ll just daydream by myself without wasting $20 on a bunch of paper-bound guidelines provided by someone else. I want to see a world that will make me want to imagine things happening in it. Show me a world I want to be part of and then I’ll put my brain to work.

More to the point, you are the writer. This is your world and you know it best. Your readers (at least initially) don’t know what fits. They’ll be aware of that on some level, and they may be rather skittish about injecting their own thoughts into it at first. But more basically, your readers cannot think of the things you will, because they are not. You. 

It’s your fiddly word-wobble. If you suppress the unique things you have to say in order to stick to the kind of advice you’ll get from articles that tell you to “leave room for the reader’s imagination,” your work will have less of you in it than it should. The readers didn’t sob themselves to sleep after every rejection letter, why is their imagination a sacred cow and yours a shameful mule to be kept in check? I’m not going to beat on your brain with dire predictions about sucking the life from your story or delivering a bland, generic copy-paste, but that’s one possible extreme.

Point two: this advice just isn’t helpful. We have entire books full of general guidelines telling us, in general, to be general about things. BE SPECIFIC YOU INVETERATE JACKANAPES! There is no reason whatsoever to offer even more advice that doesn’t give a clear perspective. And yes, maybe that clear perspective turns out to be wrong, but in being specifically wrong its flaming wreckage still tells other writers that it crashed, and, on sober reflection, why. Good, we know another thing that doesn’t work in its current form. The art advances!

The final word: we do not and I’d argue we never have had a problem with a majority of writers offering too much detail. Most writers don’t struggle with having too many details. They may tear red lines in their scalps trying to think of more or they may end up restating the same thing in ten different variations, but I’ve never read a first draft or a final one which actually had too much detail. What we usual call “over-description” is almost always inefficient prose (and I’m the expert on that, of course!). In the same vein, having a bunch of details doesn’t break flow if you present them with good writing. We do, in fact, have a serious problem in virtually every genre with a lack of style, which I’ll probably blame postmodernism for at some point soonish.

I’m not making a passive-aggressive accusation when I say that it’s enormously convenient that some of the most popular writing advice puts less burden on the author. I just mean (for now) that it’s enormously convenient. My ever-bubbling paranoia may change this in due time. You might argue that writing is hard enough as it is, and that’s fair to a point. But it’s an art, isn’t it? Do you want it to be easy (or even easier), or do you want it to be the best it can? Now, if something happens to make writing easier and better (or no worse) at the same time, that’s fine. There’s no special glory in wasting effort, just a special kind of stupid.

The reason I take issue with this principle is not on its face. I’ve been prone to ridiculous fits of over-description in the past. On the other hand, we live in a world where every individual person in an advanced college fiction course either didn’t understand that a frigate is a warship, or didn’t understand the SciFi principle that star fleets function as a kind of flying navy and name their ships accordingly. Given that most authors don’t have a problem with excess detail or explanation to begin with, telling them that we do will inevitably create a problem in the opposite direction. One of the easiest hazards in writing is to assume your readers know more than they actually do, unless you’re a haughty asshole like myself and you assume everyone around you to be an imbecile.

As a parting note, consider that an area of the brain perks up every time it sees something it likes. Whenever you offer compelling tidbits in a story, you’re setting a fire in your reader’s heads (not literally, I hope, although that’d make for one hell of a story). You’re priming their detail-oriented grey matter to wake up and get to work, which will make it easier for them to supply details of their own. The more fascinating yours are, the better. Anytime you only offer broad strokes, that’s what you’re telling your reader’s head it should hold. Most stories are exactly identical to a thousand others if you only look at broad strokes, and we’ve all got a hard enough time getting noticed as it is.

So don’t be afraid of building a firmer foundation. It’s a little hard to offer the world when there’s nothing to hold it in place.

Say something, darn it!

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