April 30, 2009 / 1 Comment

How Stupid Do You Think I Am?

A pretty loaded question, I know. And I’m sure I don’t want to hear all the answers you’ve got for me.

It’s an important question, though, whether you’re writing books or screenplays. The folks who just bought your new Harlequin Romance aren’t expecting a long lesson about the way colors mix to form new colors. If you’re billing yourself as the next Tom Clancy, the clue “man’s best friend” better not leave half a dozen codebreakers baffled as to what the three letter password is for the doomsday device. Heck, even if you’re hired to pen the new Yu-Gi-Oh movie, you probably shouldn’t spend a lot of time explaining why kids shouldn’t lick stove burners.

Nobody likes to be called stupid, after all. Not even children. Not even stupid people. We all hate being looked down on, being condescended to, or having things spoon-fed to us.

This is why so many people fell in love with the television show LOST, yet so many of these same folks despise the “enhanced” version ABC showed for a while. These episodes now had “pop-ups” added in which explained every single thing occurring on screen. Everything. Every name. Every reference. Every way every point tied back to other things. Now, it’s fun trying to figure out all the various, intertwining mysteries and stories on a show like LOST, but the moment there’s someone walking the viewers through every single one of them—even the ones that just got explained to you a few minutes ago—well then the show’s just become insulting.

Y’see, Timmy, when you spell out everything for your audience, what you’re really saying is “I know you won’t be able to figure this out on your own.” Your characters might not be saying it out loud, but the message is there. You’re too stupid for this—let me explain.

So, having established that nobody likes to be thought of as an idiot, it stands to reason everybody likes to feel smart. One of the easiest ways to make your readers feel smart is to let them figure things out on their own. Triple Academy-Award-winning screenwriter Billy Wilder once said if you let the audience add 2+2 for themselves, they’ll love you forever, and that advice holds true for writers of all forms (except maybe journalists, who should probably put a little more effort into spelling things out).

I’m going to fall back on a favorite example, Scott Frank’s amazing screenplay for Dead Again, also one of the best films Kenneth Branaugh ever directed. If you’ve seen it, you doubtlessly remember the scene when detective Mike Church finally gets to interview the old reporter. And as the octogenarian prattles on, he lets drop one word which twists everything we thought we knew about the story.

The real genius of this moment, though, are the two beats between when he says this word and Church realizes what he’s just been told. There’s just a breath of him brushing off the news as insignificant before it sinks in and his eyes open wide. And why are those two beat so important, you ask?

Because that’s when we figure it out.

The audience barely gets a second, but it’s enough. We get to realize the import of that fateful word just a hair ahead of Church. We figure it out on our own, and we figure it out before him. And even then, Church still doesn’t say what he’s just realized—he just runs out of the room.

A few easy ways to let your audience feel smart, so they will love you…

Know what your audience knows. I’ve talked a few times about common knowledge. It’s stuff you can feel safe assuming everyone knows. Nazis are bad. Jesus was good. Dinosaurs are extinct. The sixteenth president was Abraham Lincoln. The Red Sox are a baseball team. For all of you reading this, you’ll notice I rattled off the words Harlequin Romance, Tom Clancy, and Yu-Gi-Oh without bothering to explain any of them—I know for the folks reading the ranty blog these terms are all recognizable. Knowing what your specific audience knows is the most important part of making them feel smart, because this is what lets you judge what they’ll be able to figure out on their own.

Be smarter than your audience. The ever-quotable Esmund Harmsworth once pointed out mystery editors will toss aside a manuscript if they can figure out who the murderer is before the protagonist does. If you think about it, though, this is true of any sort of mystery, puzzle, or intellectual challenge in a piece of writing. If the writer has dumbed things down to the point of simplicity—or further—who would have the patience to read it? It grates on the nerves, and it makes us impatient as we wait for character to figure out what was plainly obvious twenty minutes ago.

Don’t state the obvious. The late Michael Crichton once explained a writing rule he got from his father. “Be very careful using the word obvious. If something really is obvious, you don’t need to use it. If it isn’t obvious, than you’re being condescending to the reader by using it.” Of course, this goes beyond just the word obvious. Looking at that first tip up above, should you be wasting words to tell your audience Nazis were bad, the sky is blue, or Harvard is a prestigious school? Within your own writing, when Bob finds Cindy clutching a bloody knife with a look of glee on her face, do we need to be told she’s unhinged and dangerous?

Take one step back. When something does need to be explained, we all feel the need to go the distance with it. You don’t always have to, though. Look at some of those explanatory scenes and pull it back to 85-90%. If you take your audience most of the way there, they’ll probably be able to go the rest of the way on their own.

Give them the benefit of the doubt. Every now and then, just trust they’ll get it. Not all the time, but every now and then make a leap of faith your audience can make a connection with almost no help whatsoever from you. Odds are that leap isn’t as big as you think it is. When your audience pulls those slim threads together all on their own, they’re going to love you for it.

So, now that we’ve (hopefully) established I’m not quite as stupid as you all thought I was, perhaps you’d like to stop by next week for a few thoughts on writer’s block.

Provided, of course, that I can just figure out how to get them all down.

Until then, go write.