The Explanation Question

There is no more difficult question for a writer to address than the balancing of their intended communication. Readers are not clones. Logical ReaderG may be very smart about plot nuances, while empathetic ReaderT may be intuitive about character motives.

Whether you’re writing genre fiction or literary fiction, how do you accommodate varying levels of audience taste and sophistication? There’s no easy answer here because the problem is not simply one of revelation. If you’ve written a murder mystery, and at the end of the story none of your readers knows who the murderer is, then yes, you failed. On the other hand, if you’ve written a literary piece that attempts to describe torture by means of a subtle metaphor, yet nobody has any idea that your story is about torture, then maybe you’re not showing your work to the right people.

What’s critical in both of these examples is calibration, which you should think of as an intrinsic part of your authorial intent. (It can be tempting to talk about markets in such instances, but I don’t think you should do that. Markets speak to money, not craft.) Your job as a writer is to meet your craft responsibilities, and calibrating your stories for your intended audience is one such obligation.

Again, if you’re writing a murder mystery, you want every single reader at the end of the book to know who the murderer was. To achieve that goal, you will — regardless how oblique or subtle you’ve been in other ways — write something like this: “The murderer is none other than…Mr. Blithers!” And in the mystery genre you pretty much have an obligation to be that bald in your explanation.

On the other hand, if you’re writing a literary work, you don’t want to bludgeon your readers with literal metaphors. Writing, “Each day passed like a day on the rack,” is not simply inelegant, it’s going to turn off readers who appreciate subtlety, which is a de facto definition of the literary audience. Unfortunately, calibrating your story for the sophistication of a literary audience is not only difficult, it may distort your intention as an author. Balancing these two needs — your own, and the needs of your readers — never gets easy, no matter how much experience you have.

How much should you do to explain your work to readers? How determined should you be to make sure your message gets through? There’s no easy answer. Again, you have to take feedback on a case-by-case basis, and you have to ask yourself whether any particular confused or oblivious reader is a reader you intended to speak to.

Please note, however, that this is not a license to dismiss feedback you do not like. In my experience, writers who dismiss feedback because they think a reader doesn’t understand their genius are more common than truly oblivious readers.


This is a reprint from Mark Barrett‘s Ditchwalk.