How and Who matters more than What

pot of chili
Getting your reader to accept something may be like getting your child to try chili. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like many kids, my son is a picky eater. My wife and I are fairly adventurous cooks so we try a lot of different things and enjoy a wide range of foods. My 11-year-old, not so much. We found the perfect solution to that, although we haven’t quite implemented it: when we want him to try a new food, first we’ll get a friend’s mom to try it on him at his next dinner-over or sleep-over. If someone else wants him to try chili or stew or whatever, he’ll give it an honest try. Usually he will like it. So our thought is to develop a circle of parents and kids. When one of us wants our kids to try a new food out, first we get someone else to make it for them when they’re a guest at that house. If we ever really try that, I’ll let you know how it works 🙂

English: A live shootout.
Will your reader really believe the scene where your hero dodges six bullets in a row? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why is this? Is he just being fickle? Well, yes he is being fickle but what is really happening is that this food experiment is occurring outside of the normal patterns. It isn’t mom or dad telling him it will taste good, it is an authority figure whom he wants to please telling him to try it.

When it comes to writing, readers have similar issues. They become used to you as the writer or certain characters. Information from such sources tends to be more critically sifted by the reader making it harder to get a difficult plot point past them.

What do to about it? I can’t recall where I read this any more (probably Jack Bickham) but one tip that has served me well: if you need to have something happen that may strain credulity, relate it after the fact rather than describe it as it occurs. This goes against the advice to show everything but sometimes it is better to tell than to show.

If a secondary character is going to do something like dodge six straight shots fired by a robber, your reader may actually be more likely to accept that as fact if you relate it as something that has already happened rather than show it happening. In the first case, it is historical fact and people tend to accept what has happened as, well, fact. In the second case, your writing skills may be sorely pressed by a scene like that. Might be easier to just tell it.

Similarly, when it comes to dialogue, who speaks and how they say it matters a lot, often more than what they are saying. Sometimes it is better to push the plot along with a suggestion from someone other than your POV character because your POV character may have to reveal some internal thinking before speaking that line, inner monologue that might disrupt the flow or reveal more than you, as the author, want to reveal yet. Or it might send your POV character down a path you aren’t ready for her to go down yet (for instance if you don’t want her yet suspecting another character of ill-intent, then you don’t want her doubting that character in dialogue. If you want to plant the seeds for the reader, you have a different character do that, of course.)

But just as with having the less credible be told rather than shown, you can protect certain characters’ reputations with the reader by having other characters spout invective, silly suggestions, vile comments that you  might need to establish the setting or affect the mood. Beyond that, you do, of course, need to keep dialogue in-character for the speaker. It’s no good having the gas station attendant explaining warp drive (unless he’s working on his physics degree) or the terrified crime victim offering a cool, level-headed description of the attacker.

As with getting the fickle child to try a new dish, consider who speaks or how you relate a fact to nudge the fickle reader along.

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