The Surprising Effect of Too Much Clarity in a Story

This week’s video warns against the temptation to eliminate all subtlety and ambiguity.

the-surprising-effect-of-too-much-clarityDid you know that there’s such a thing as an author being too clear? Most of the time, we’re worrying our heads off to ensure our stories are clear enough. One of my first questions to beta readers and critique partners is always, “Were you ever confused?” Because we really, really don’t want our readers to be confused. A story that doesn’t make sense is a story that’s gonna be ditched if for no other reason than that’s it’s simply too difficult for readers to bother slogging through the murk.
So it’s easy for us to go all paranoid and start thinking we need to spell out every little thing. Especially if we’re writing a story set in a foreign milieu—a different country, a different time, or just a super-detailed subculture such as the military—we’re going to have readers who are unfamiliar with what we’re talking about. So we go to some trouble to spell it out. But this is where the surprising effect of too much clarity can become a problem.
As much as readers appreciate clarity, they also like to be treated like intelligent adults. Particularly if they already have some grasp of your subject matter—and for every ignorant reader, there will be an educated one—they’re going to want the satisfaction of seeing their own knowledge in action.
For example, I recently read a short science fiction story that employed a good bit of nautical terminology. As someone who loves historical naval stories, of the ilk of Aubrey/Maturin and Horatio Hornblower, I found this very satisfying. What I didn’t find so satisfying was that every one of these terms was explained to the reader, which severely mitigated my own pleasure at having recognized the terms and their meanings. This is why authors must walk the line of making foreign concepts clear from the context, for readers who aren’t in the know, without talking down to readers who are already familiar with the subject.


2 Replies to “The Surprising Effect of Too Much Clarity in a Story”

  1. I agree!!!! Sometimes I read an overly descriptive story, and I get aggravated. It’s like “Damn, leave some room for my imagination to play!!!”. That being said, I try to craft my stories with that in mind. Just descriptive enough that you get a solid foundation for your mind to fill in the blanks. I don’t need to wax poetic for three paragraphs about the exact blue hue of a character’s eyes, I will use one, maybe two descriptors…at the same time, I won’t say someone has “ocean colored eyes”. The hue of the ocean depends on location. I have been to beaches where the water is a crisp, clear cerulean (very pretty!), but here in South Jersey, the water has a brownish green hue that makes me think of pollution and fish vomit (not so pretty). If I must say ocean, maybe “the shade of his eyes was reminiscent of the color of the ocean waves off the shore of Fiji”.

    There’s a fine line. Too much description and your readers get annoyed. Too little, and they get confused.

  2. An interesting take that I’ve never really thought about. I’ve been taught to treat writing with mathematical precision (still in high school) and ensure that all details serve to spell out the argument or plot to leave no room for confusion or ambiguity. To do otherwise, I’ve been told, is to write lazily. I’ll keep this in mind!

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