Respect Your Reader’s Intelligence

now where are those rutabaga chips?When someone tells a joke and then explains the punchline, does it make the joke funnier?

When you’ve made a dumb mistake and someone points it out, is that helpful?

I am reminded of of a scene from John Cleese’s brilliant Fawlty Towers where Basil Fawlty reacts to his wife Sybils’ comments: “Perhaps we can get you on Mastermind; next contestant, Sybil Fawlty from Torquay, special category, The Bleedin’ Obvious!

Having the obvious explained or pointed out to us is insulting. We’re smart enough to figure the joke out. (Even if we’re not, we’d rather sort it on our own than to have someone say, “In case you didn’t get the joke . . . “)

Can you imagine a scene in a movie or TV show where a character walks out their front door, gets in the car, drives to the store, and nothing else happens?

Here’s how it’s done: they’re at the table arguing about who was supposed to pick up the chips. Joel makes it obvious that chips were on the list, and Sue just plain forgot them.

Cut to the chip aisle at the store, then pan to Joel’s face as he picks up a bag of Sue’s favorites.

You don’t need to tell anyone anywhere that Joel went out, got in his car, and drove to the store. You don’t even need to tell them that he probably forgot to write chips on the list and that’s why he’s the one at the store, not Sue.

This never happens at our house, of course. Not that I ever remember to write anything on the list. Sue is just so good that she buys what we need whether I write it down or not.

When you find yourself writing something like “Malcolm’s razor-sharp knife sliced through the rope easily” ask yourself why the reader needs you to tell them that. What subtleties of character would they miss if you didn’t spell that out? What important plot point does it infuse, create, or support?

If it’s just what’s called on the stage “shoe leather”, getting someone from over here to over there then leave it out.

Respect your reader’s intelligence. Make them feel smart and they’ll assume you’re smart too.

But make them feel dumb . . .

6 thoughts on “Respect Your Reader’s Intelligence

  1. Thanks Joel. Deleting the obvious is another way to trim my novel. I know these things, of course, but reading it in another writer’s words highlights points that had slipped out of my conscious awareness.

    1. When I’m telling a joke, it’s obvious to me that letting the listener figure out the punchline by almost delivering it makes it much funnier for them.

      Writing prose, I lean toward fear: “What if they don’t figure it out?” Well, if they don’t figure it out, they’re probably not my core fans, which is the group I should be writing for.

  2. I’m getting better at finding those places to leave out and let the reader fill in the blanks. You explained this to me a while back before using a gorilla joke (that joke, by the way, I still find funny!), and it stuck…the joke and the lesson. :)
    Thanks!

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