Thursday, November 6, 2014

Writers, Trust Your Readers to Think Critically and Imaginatively

Tana French’s The Secret Place offers one more lesson for writers: trust your readers.

Photo by Al Griffin
Early playwrights did. They believed that audiences would willingly suspend disbelief, forgiving and forgetting that the fourth wall or any walls for that matter were absent. They did not demand absolute realism. They agreed that the mind is capable of leaps and bounds, of imagining those walls and props.

Early fiction writers were more reluctant. They strove to add realism. Chaucer, for example, created a cast of characters on a pilgrimage, each one charged with inventing a story to win a steak dinner at journey’s end. This Prologue to the Canterbury Tales was his solid fourth wall—his excuse for a string of stories to follow.

Emily Brönte, several hundred years later, followed Chaucer’s paradigm. She added Nellie and Lockwood as a frame for her tale about love and revenge on Wuthering Heights. These two witnesses told Catherine and Heathcliff’s story, and like most fiction then, told it chronologically.

Several decades later, James Joyce experimented with internal and external dialogue interwoven in a coming-of-age story about artists, titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He was but one who pushed the boundaries of conventional fiction.

Today, writers trust their readers to be critical thinkers—well, some writers do, and for the most part, they are not writers producing popular fiction. They are not the Dan Browns on anyone’s best-seller list, but they are successful writers with their own set of devoted readers. They are Michael Chabon, Kate Atkinson, Dave Eggers, Cormac McCarthy, and Joy Kogawa.

Tana French reminded me of a writer’s faith in readers when she leapt from one place to another, one time to another, late in her more recent novel, The Secret Place. Holly Mackey is at home for a weekend away from Kilda’s, enjoying the camaraderie between her parents, reflecting upon friendships as her mother recounts meeting one of her closest pals from her own days at Kilda’s thirty years earlier. In the next paragraph, Holly is back at Kilda’s herself. French needs no transitional paragraph, no row of asterisks to delineate a change of scene within a single chapter (at least not in my electronic text). She doesn’t provide a narrator or break for a new chapter. She simply transitions from place and time into another place and time, and we follow.

Reading Challenge:

Read one or more of the National Book Award for Fiction finalists. Study the author’s techniques.

Writing Challenge:


Be clear, but trust your readers.