Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How to Lead Your Reader by the Nose

Leading your readers by the nose doesn’t sound like something a writer would ever want to do, does it? But when you think about it, all good writers do it. And the successful writers are the ones with enough skill to hide this fact from their readers.

When readers pick up your book, they’re much like newborn children, ignorant of the rules of your world, but eager to learn how it all works. They scour through your words, trying to piece together how your world and characters tick. They pounce on clues, or everything they think is a clue, like a starving person at a buffet.

This is a good thing.

Unfortunately, this also means if you aren’t proactive enough, it’s easy for the reader to head down the wrong path. If you spend too much time on a description, for example, they’ll assume the object/person/setting being described is important, regardless what you meant for them to think. If you neglect to guide the reader via interior thoughts of your characters, you might be shocked by the conclusions your readers come up with on their own. As a writer, it’s your job to ensure every word in the story leads the reader down the right path.

But that isn’t always easy. If you aren’t subtle enough, the reader will know he’s being led by the nose and will resent it. On the other hand, it’s easy to be too subtle. Since you know so much more about the world, what might seem like a clever and subtle hint to you might be darn near impossible for the reader to understand.

I recall a D&D game I played back in college. The dungeon master led us into a maze located within a forest. We spent five or six hours wandering aimlessly around the various twisting paths, battling monsters at every turn, before we reached the treasure at the center of the forest. When the gaming session ended and we packed up our stuff to go home and get some much needed sleep, the dungeon master expressed surprise that it had taken us so long to find the treasure. Apparently, he had experimented with the map ahead of time, trying to judge how long it would take us to reach the goal, and had concluded it shouldn’t take us longer than an hour. The only assumption he made was that whenever a path branched off in different directions, we’d pick the path that moved us closer to the center of the forest, since, as everyone knows, that’s where the treasure usually is. :)

Impeccable logic, to be sure. Trouble is, we didn’t know where the center of the forest was located! Since he had a map with an outline of the forest, he knew exactly which way we should go in every case. But since we had no idea where the forest boundaries were, we had no clue which way to turn. Lesson learned.

So what’s an author to do? How can we know if we’ve struck the right balance? Simple. Find lots of critique partners and beta-readers… and then listen to what they have to say.  And if they ever use the words "I'm confused," sit up and take notice!



  1. The balance is such an art. That's what we spend most of our time perfecting.

  2. "If you neglect to guide the reader via interior thoughts of your characters, you might be shocked by the conclusions your readers come up with on their own." I totally experienced this with a story I'm working on. One of my local critique partners said they weren't sure if my character was really okay with what had happened and I guess the subtle nod and line, "I'm fine," wasn't enough. He said--his words, not mine--that women never say what they mean. And he needed more validation through narration.

    It's hard to find that balance, but it's a good thought to have in the back of the mind.

  3. That's a good analogy. (And I've DM'ed before - it always takes the characters longer than you think because they don't know where they are going in the first place.) Not sure if I'm good with subtle or not.

  4. Yes,it's a tricky balance -- providing enough information for your reader to take the path you want them to take, without putting so much information in that it takes the reader out of the story.

  5. Yep, the critique partners are your best bet for getting that balance right. Just tweak until they approve.