Wednesday, May 22, 2013

It's Okay to Expect Readers to be Smart

I don't care much for random reader reviews when I'm thinking about reading a new book. I might be influenced by the review of a friend or a publishing person I follow, but the opinions of Random Other Person Who Bought This Book don't really get my attention. I usually don't even bother reading them, and if I do it's not generally until after I've read the book anyway.

This week I read a new book, Nameless, by Lili St. Crow. (Yes, that very same Lilith Saintcrow I was just talking about the other day. Only in her YA novelist persona.) And for some reason, probably because it was late and I was on the internet and too tired to click off the page or something, I ended up reading a few of the random reviews.

One thing that jumped out at me was that people were irritated and in some cases flat out pissed off that they didn't get a deep and thorough explanation of every aspect of the world building. The jargon was unfamiliar, and they didn't seem to think it was fair that St. Crow didn't take the time to stop and explain the meaning of every word to them.

Um... but, she did explain them. There wasn't a big glossary at the beginning of the book or anything, and she didn't waste time letting giant puddles of exposition gather around the edges of every scene, but the explanations were there.

If anyone is worried about spoilers, don't be. I'm not going to be revealing any big plot secrets here. Just general details.

For those who haven't read it, Nameless is a retelling of Snow White set in an alternate reality where magic became a part of the general knowledge and culture sometime around the end of WWI. Given that this was almost a century ago, the world Cami/Snow White lives is strikingly different from the one we know. Most distressingly for the random reviewers, the slang is different. There's a lot of talk about the Family, jacks, the waste, fausts, and minotaurs. (Several of the random reviewer folks were very concerned about the presence of unexplained minotaurs, even though they never directly impacted the story.)

It's also written from a close third person POV. Very close. Close enough that I wonder why St. Crow didn't just write it in first person. We are inside Cami's head for the entire story. We see through her eyes, hear what she hears, read her thoughts. We get no other influence. The POV is never from another character. There is no omniscient narrator. We experience the story as Cami does and are limited to knowing only what she thinks and feels and observes.

Because of that, there is pretty much no way for St. Crow to explain every little detail of the world to the reader without killing the momentum of the story. When the POV is this close, every piece of exposition is theoretically internal monologue. Having grown up in a world where magic is normal, the fact that, for example, her adoptive family are vampires isn't something Cami is going to spend a whole hell of a lot of time actively thinking about.

NOTE: I'm not saying this kind of thing never happens. I've read countless books where I guess I was supposed to assume time stopped in the middle of a fight or something so the main character could muse absently over their life history and the nature of their world. Writers make that mistake all the time. And yes, it is a mistake. I don't know about you, but I know when I'm in the middle of the big important moments in my life, I can't just make everyone around me freeze while I really think about all the possible connections and consequences those moments could have.

Back to the vampire example. Nico has fangs, but that isn't any more noteworthy in Cami's world than Long Suffering Husband having black hair is in mine. When I first met him, it was a new bit of information that I took note of. More than a decade later, pretty much the only time I actively think about Long Suffering Husband's hair is when he's overdue for getting it buzzed off and I feel the need to tell him to comb it before he goes out in public.

Similarly, Cami isn't going to look at Nico and think something along the lines of "gee, the Family are vampires, immortal beings who drink blood and have super human strength, which would seem so strange to me if I'd grown up in a world completely unlike the one I've always known." So, without having something like this glaringly obvious smashing of the fourth wall appear in the novel, how did I know the Family are vampires?

Well, you see, in the middle of the story, Cami looks into a magic mirror and somehow contacts an alternate version of herself, one raised in our world. In asking this mysterious stranger for advice about her current conundrums, she is forced to explain all the strange details of her world. After all, how could alternate-universe Cami truly understand her plight and empathize with her if she never explicitly associated the blood-drinking, fang-bearing Family with the word "vampire"?

It's time to reveal it to you all. I am a master hacker and I have recently broken into Ms. St. Crow's computer and stolen her secret world building notes, giving me all the background information one could ever want about the Tales of Beauty and Madness.

Also, I know who Dru ends up with. Cristophe? Graves? Someone else entirely? Muhahahahahah! I'll never tell!

No, seriously, folks. I know because I read the freaking book and used my brain while I was doing it. There's a scene near the beginning where Nico defends Cami in a bar. In the process, he spills his drink (a whiskey and calf), shows off his extended canines, tosses a man into the bar so hard he leaves a man-shaped dent in the wood, and every Family member in the place, including Nico, perks up with interest and little red flashes in their eyes when Cami cuts her hand and starts bleeding all over the place. Also, there's some mention earlier of Nico being heir to the living representative of the Family, which kind of implies that some of the Family representatives are not living. Hmmm.... Fangs, blood drinking, super strong, demonic eye glowing, undead... Yeah, I'm feel pretty confident saying the Family are vampires, even though the word never gets used once in the novel.

There's nothing wrong with expecting the reader to be able to think independently, to give them the details and expect them to make the connections between them on their own. In fact, it's something every writer should learn how to do. Writing--writing well, anyway--especially in a close third or first person POV means becoming a master of my favorite bit of writerly wisdom: show, don't tell. That is the only way to get information to the reader. Unless you want soggy puddles of exposition dripping off your pages or you want to bring in a hermit child from another universe follow the main character around and ask lots of questions, that is.

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