On patronising readers.
This summer, I read a lot of crime and ‘psychological drama’. Some good, some not so much. But something bugged me. Like summer flip-flops, one minor irritation rubbed a soft spot and grew into a big fat blister.
Here is where it bursts.
Author: Surely she wouldn’t have walked out on him without even leaving a note?
Reader: Well, that’s what it looks like.
Author: Surely he’s just being friendly and has no designs on my nubile body?
Reader: Are you really that naïve?
Author: Surely these teethmarks can’t possibly mean he bit the victims?
Reader: Yawn. What’s on telly?
DO NOT TELL THE READER WHAT QUESTIONS TO ASK!!!
Readers actually like trying to work things out for themselves. Those who enjoy crime (and this year’s irritating umbrella term ‘psychological’ drama) read such things to analyse the information given and come to their own conclusions.
‘Surely’ has the same effect of someone behind you in the cinema saying, ‘Did you see that bangle/photograph/cricket box? That will be significant later’ or ‘I hope you noticed Simon’s unhealthy interest in hedgehogs’. All in an annoyingly smug voice.
Variants on Surely…
Had he really emptied their joint account and fled the country?
How could she lie to her sister, our mother and her own children?
If they really had killed before, what was to stop it happening again?
Did three brutal and spookily similar murders indicate a serial killer?
Deduction allows your reader to take all the clues and knot them into an explanation, theory or wild goose chase. Then after the author’s cunning denouement, compare their map-reading, character-comprehension and familiarity with the genre to see how your theories (mis)matched.
Induction beats them around the head and face with blunt signposts until they accept the fact your naïve protagonist would accompany the psychopath to a deserted castle to be sacrificed to the God of Unlikely Coincidence, who happens to be called Shirley.
When we (and here I speak for readers) put the book down and do something which allows cogitative thought, such as dog-walking, lawn-mowing or glass-blowing, we are perfectly capable of conjuring questions of our own.
Why did s/he do that? I reckon it’s because…
Just as you leave a party and reflect on your new acquaintances, you add all the signifiers together and form a subjective opinion. That person is funny/needy/weird/sexy/dodgy/sociopathic. This game becomes far less fun if each party guest has a Post-It on their forehead saying, ‘Slimy Womaniser’, ‘Gold-digging Divorcee’, or ‘I Hurt Gerbils’.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a reader, writer, or someone like my mum, who does both. So here’s some knuckle-bloodied advice for free.
Write your first draft as a writer, then change in a phonebox and read it as a reader.
If Reader You wants to punch Writer You in the face and shout ‘Don’t patronise me. Who do you think you are?’ something may need to change.