The Secret All Great Storytellers Know
Can you remember the last time you were in the presence of a true storyteller? When we run into those people, at parties or as neighbors or in the next aisle over in the grocery store, we feel it. There’s a kind of magic in the way they set the stage for their yarn, color their characters, feed us details.
Ever notice that the best raconteurs never really give away that many details?
I’m not one of those great storytellers. Good wordsmith, yes. Decent debater and writer of persuasive things, yes. Good recounter of events that actually happened, sure.
But good storyteller? Not really. When I’m telling anything more sophisticated than a knock-knock joke, I always feel compelled to end with, “I guess you had to be there.”
Do you ever feel that way?
Why We Overwrite
Writers can also fall victim to this brand of guess-you-had-to-be-there, but we’re at a disadvantage because we don’t get to watch a listener’s expression make that icky transition from interested to exasperated. We don’t know we’ve overdone it until it’s too late, after we’ve done the work and sent the writing off to other people to be read.
If you’ve ever written a sentence like, “As the dull thud of the footsteps grew louder, Carmen’s hands began to shake,” and then felt the need to follow it up with something like, “She was afraid”—that’s overwriting.
Your reader knows Carmen is afraid. Her hands are shaking, and as long as she hasn’t suddenly developed some sort of neuromuscular disorder while hiding from your serial killer (plot twist!), there’s no need for further explanation.
Usually, adding too many details is a sign that we don’t trust our readers to “get” our message without a ton of prompting. A preponderance of details betray the our fear of being misunderstood.
A master storyteller trusts the reader.
Dump the Detail Habit by Picturing Your Perfect Reader
The one thing all good raconteurs have in common is:
When you listen to them tell a story, you feel entertained, but you also feel trusted. Because they’re not trying to control your every expectation, or fill in every little gap, it’s on you, the listener, to understand and keep up.
The weird thing is: you like that.
Instead of having every nuance handed to them, readers appreciate being given room to imagine when they’re reading your story, but this can be difficult, especially for new writers.
One way to learn to trust your readers is to practice visualizing them.
Devote some of your creative time to not only imaging your characters, but also to imaging the readers that’ll be enjoying those elements once they’re in print.
Who are they? A trusted friend? Your husband or wife? Your kids?
When I’m trying to get a sense of who my reader is, I try not to think of reviewers, or even beta readers. I picture the smartest people I know personally. These people would get impatient with my overwriting, and most importantly, they’re smart cookies, for whom I don’t have to work too hard to make sure they “get it.”
This helps me, on a subconscious level, to scale back the overwriting and quit throwing every detail I can find into the story.
If you try this technique, just be prepared to delete some of those details—even the really good ones—once you know they’re unnecessary! (I find deleting details that are well-written but unnecessary, really difficult, so I’ll move them to a new document for later use. Makes it less painful.)
What strategies do you use to overcome overwriting, and other crises of writing confidence? Share them in the comments!
*This post was by Shanan Haislip. Shanan will be a regular contributor on Positive Writer. Her previous post was: 6 Ways to Enjoy the Editing Process (Seriously). Leave a comment and let Shanan know if you enjoyed her post.*
About Shanan Haislip
I'm a full-time business writer, an essayist, and webmaster at The Procrastiwriter, a blog about ways to fit writing in around a full-time life (without going insane). I'm also a regular contributor on PositiveWriter.com and contributed to The Audacity to be a Writer. Join me on Twitter at @Write_Tomorrow.