A few years back, I had the blessing to spend a crazy powder skiing relatively hard-to-find terrain: fully snow-covered chutes. Straight down and tight. When I was standing at the precipice, my ski tips floating out over the edge, I was intimidated. I wanted to ski the chute, but when I looked straight down and saw how steep and deep and narrow, I balked. I overcame the fear and dropped in. The trick, I discovered after an adrenaline-filled run, was to trust my legs. When I needed to turn, they were strong enough. When I needed to hold solid, they were reliable. It wasn’t nearly as scary or as physically strenuous as I thought it might be. I realized that if I trusted, just plain trusted, I could do more with less.
Writing is no different. Many beginning and intermediate writers forget about Trust. You must trust your skill, of course. But more than anything, trust your readers. They’re a lot smarter than you might think and, surprisingly, they’re smarter than they give themselves credit for.
The biggest indicator that a writer doesn’t trust the reader falls in line with the Show v. Tell issues. When you deliver an image or an action, you can Show it or you can Tell it (there are times and places for each). However, you’ll never develop readers trust in your and you exhibit no trust in your reader when you Show and Tell at the same time. I’ve often read a great line or two, felt connected to the action and the character, only to have the writer Tell me what I should feel or how I should interpret the line.
Readers trust writers to tell a good story. Writers need to trust readers to understand the smaller nuances of that story. As an example, let’s look at this two-paragraph snippet:
“Sarah, get down from there. How many times do I have to tell you?” John yelled. His daughter had climbed up the tree in the backyard again. It was the third time this week she had done it and John was getting incredibly aggravated with her. He had told her the Wednesday before and the Friday before. And here it was Sunday and she was up in the tree again. She was being disobedient.
Sarah climbed down from the tree, using only one hand. In the other hand she held a fist close to her body. He ran to her and lifted her off the tree, securely holding her arm because he thought she had hurt it. “Look, daddy,” she said. She opened her hand to reveal a bird, it’s wing obviously broken. “We need to save it.” Sarah looked up at her father and John knew how much she loved this bird even though when she was climbing down he was really worried that she had hurt her hand. (170 words)
From this section the reader gets some important facts: 1) Sarah is in a tree and she shouldn’t be, 2) John is upset about this, 3) John is a worrier, and 4) Sarah has a heart of gold. But, if you trust the reader, you can also deliver those same facts through actions and emotions without directly spelling it out.
Cut. Combine. Condense. The reader will get the same information in fewer words without sacrificing any of the images or emotions. Trust your reader to pick up more than surface actions and facts.
“Sarah get down from there. How many times do I have to tell you?” John yelled.
As his daughter descended the tree, she used only her right hand and clutched her left close to her body. John felt his stomach drop, and he sprinted to meet her at the last branch, lifted her off the tree, holding her left arm delicately in his. “Look, daddy,” Sarah said, extending her left hand to reveal a bird, its wing broken. “We need to save it.” (77 words)
In this paragraph, we have the same information using 100 fewer words. We still know Sarah is in a tree, but shouldn’t be (the dialogue and “yelled” imply that). We still know that the father is upset with and worried for his daughter (sprinting and not letting her climb down herself). We still know that Sarah has a heart of gold (saving of the bird).
You can also lean harder in implication without interaction, like when a character is alone. Like this example, where the writer under-trusts and over-explains.
Jacob woke up at 6am. He made the bed before he went to take a shower, using the shampoo and conditioner he thought smelled so good. Then he brushed his teeth while he waited for his hair to dry. If he put gel in his hair before it dried, the gel would lose its hold by the middle of the day. He ate a bowl of cereal and then he left for work, locking the door behind him with this key. He tried to leave each morning by 730am, but usually he was late. Last week, his boss had yelled at him and he didn’t want that to happen again. But here he was, finishing his cereal at 730 am when he should have been on his way already. He was about to be late again.
Unless Jacob does each of these steps meticulously and it’s really important to his character that he brushes his teeth (which it probably isn’t), then this whole paragraph is unneeded and implied (and if Jacob needs to be meticulous, my writing itself needs to be more meticulously detailed). Readers can presume a shower, breakfast and brushed teeth as part of morning routine. It’s more important to know that Jacob is habitually late. And maybe the hair gel thing is just a good character trait, so we’ll leave that in. So the section could be re-written as:
Jacob woke every morning at 6am to get ready for his day. He tried to leave his house by 730, but like every other day he was late. This morning he put on hair gel while his hair was still wet, and he had to redo it. That cost him a crucial ten minutes. His boss would probably yell at him. Again.
Like any other relationship, Trust is a crucial component. Be sure to trust your reader. Give them what they need, and trust they’re smart enough to pick up the message you’re laying down.