It’s All in Your Head

Or too much of it is, anyway.  When it comes to stating — or not stating — the obvious, it’s possible to be too subtle for your own good.

I’m talking here about the kind of excessive subtlety that leads to what are sometimes called “head stories” — which is to say, the particular kind of flawed story you get when there are elements of it that are so obvious to the writer that they aren’t mentioned in the text.  They never make it out of the writer’s head; hence the name.

But readers can only read texts, not minds.  If you don’t put that material down on the page — or don’t at least put down enough of it that they can reasonably infer the rest — then they won’t ever know that it’s there.

If you’ve got something crucial to your story that you want the reader to work out by inference from the clues supplied, then you need to, first, make certain that you have in fact supplied enough clues for the reader to draw the desired inference; and second, make certain that you give the reader confirmation at some point that he or she has interpreted the matter correctly.  (This confirmation is one of the strings that can be usefully tied up in the story’s denouement.)

How many hints or clues are enough?  As always with writing, it depends — but three is a nice round number.  Western-influenced people tend to regard three as significant and memorable; we show it in sayings like “Third time’s the charm” or “Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action.”  If something is called to our attention three times, we’re going to assume that the writer had a reason for waving it in our faces like that.  Also — when supplying the clues, remember that you have privileged knowledge that the reader does not; therefore, what is screamingly obvious to you may not be so to anybody else.

As a general rule, the answer to the question, “Am I being too obvious here?” is usually, “No.”  If you are being too obvious, your first reader or your editor will probably tell you.

One thought on “It’s All in Your Head

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