How we cheat the reader

by on Jul.11, 2012, under Process

We as writers have a tendency at times to cheat the reader. We’re not intending to. But we use imagery that we think they’ll interpret, and save ourselves a bit of writing. Here’s an example from an upcoming story of mine:

Heinrich stood blocking the exit at the bottom of the access tube. He was covered from his head down in full military armor. He projected business. No wonder the crowd was afraid.

Yeah, that works. Most people will visualize what military armor might look like, probably grabbed from video game commercials. But did I really do my job as a writer?

There are lots of points of view on this topic, but for my own writing I say no. I was cheating the reader, making them do all the visualization work. Yes, the reader has to visualize but we can make this a lot easier for them. Here’s what I’ve revised that part to:

  Heinrich stood blocking the exit at the bottom of the access tube. He was covered in full military armor. The helmet was made of transparent ballistic plastics, giving him perfect visibility. His torso was covered in metallic armor emblazoned with the UDF logo. The interlocking segments of armor on his legs trailed down to large armored boots which likely had powerful magnetic clamps.

  The boots gave him another foot in height, so he towered over the crowd in the tube. A huge double-barreled automatic rifle swung from ball bearing mounts on his armor. His arms loosely held several control brackets, one of which was obviously controlling the weapon. A precision aiming device covered one eye. The gun was aimed directly at the crowd. No wonder they had stopped.

I think the reader has a much better image of what Heinrich is wearing, and exactly why the crowd was intimidated. I’m glad this part is better. I hope to avoid this mistake in the future and never cheat the reader.

3 Comments for this entry

  • Erick Melton

    You don’t want to cheat the reader, Jo, but neither do you want to burden him or her. Whether or not your cheating I think depends on 1) the length of the piece and 2) the purpose of scene in question.

    Taking your example above, your first sample works just fine if your inserting it into a running narrative where we as readers are in the midst of a situation where we go from one image to another. If the flow of action continues beyond the moment where we see Heinrich, then it works.

    The second version works much better if it is intended to put a cap on the action. Things are happening, people trying to escape, screaming, yelling, then BAM! Heinrich shows up in his military armor stopping them cold AND ending the beat in the action.

    The first version is too thin to bring us to the same halt, while the second version, inserted in a narrative flow that hasn’t reached its conclusion, would burden the reader with details he didn’t need at that moment.

  • alliefiona

    Dunno. My eyes glazed over halfway through the first paragraph. TMI in one chunk, unless your readers are tech-geeks. I would be just as bored with a two-paragraph description of a Romance-novel heroine in all her taffeta glory.

    My approach would be to describe only a snapshot at first, just enough to imprint a striking first-impression. In addition I *might* add a couple of things that could be important to the later story. (f’rinstance: He’s tall and imposing in his shiny, UDF logo’d suit-which clues the reader into his menace and affiliation. He’s brandishing a gun, which means he’s dangerous. His suit has magnetic clamps, which will be pivotal in an upcoming scene.) I would continue to add bits here and there to fill out the description in the course of the narrative, which would hone, sharpen and remind the reader what the character looks like. And I’d intersperse it with action. He polished his (describe) gun. He buffed a smudge in his ballistic plastic shell. Stuff like that.

    Rather than being lazy, this approach takes hard work. You have to be continually conscious of what the character looks like while you’re writing, and look for opportunities to work it seamlessly into the flow.

    The natural way of things is that our first inventory of someone is full of shortcuts and snap judgments. Later we start noticing things, and we usually do a lot of unconscious error-correcting as we continue to interact with the person… Yet our brain thinks we noticed those things all along! I think the same happens in reading.

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