Stand aside for your reader






This post by Craig Snider

Horror writer and editor, Michael Knost, said “As a horror writer, I do not give you nightmares–I merely give you the fodder to create your own. I am basically the lumberjack who delivers firewood, stacking it next to your house. It’s up to you to bring it inside and light it.”

How true this statement is, not only for horror writing, but for writing as a whole. As writers, it isn’t our job to hold the readers hand, telling them what this statement means, or what this image represents, or how the story should make them feel. It is the writer’s job to provide the material for the reader to reach their own conclusions. Think of it this way: the writer hands the reader a flashlight and a map, then points toward the path that will begin their journey.

So, how does one apply this to real-world writing? For one, learning how to “show” rather than “tell.” We’ve all heard this one, and each writer employs this technique in different ways, but the take-away from this piece of advice is to always try to provide the reader with the opportunity to judge for themselves what is happening in the scene, what is happening between the characters, or any other implications of your writing.

Another way to do this is by avoiding the urge to preach or lecture the reader. All too often, writers fall into this trap. They stand on their soapbox and begin casting judgement on the world for their own agendas. They may not even realize they are doing it. It is easy to do if you aren’t careful, and especially if your writing takes you into the realm of politics, religion, or philosophy. The writer’s job is not to tell the reader your opinion. In fact, you should do your best as an author to provide opposite and equally compelling arguments for all sides presented in your story. The more “gray” areas there are in your writing, the better. That means the writer will have to decide what they believe.

As writers, we have to learn to let go. We give our stories over to the reader, then it is entirely up to them what they make of the story. We can’t tell them what something means, they must decide for themselves. Many authors believe that the reader should or must understand the author’s true intentions or they’ve failed. Why does it matter what the author intends? Sure, to some extent, the story can be better understood if we see it from the author’s point of view, but in the end it is what the reader believes that matters. Because, no matter what the author intends, unless they are breaking the rules listed above, the reader is the end of the line, and the buck stops with them. So, stand aside, hand them your book, which will be their map, and let them take the journey for themselves.



15 thoughts on “Stand aside for your reader

  1. Great post Craig. Truer words could not be spoken. Sometimes we get so carried away with ourselves as writers we almost forget to even think about the reader’s perceptions. It is our job to write a great book, it’s the reader’s job to interpret it however they see fit. Lots of good advice here!


  2. I write third-person POV in fantasy genre, and try to show the plot through the eyes of my various major characters and occasionally through the eyes of a minor character, like a common foot soldier in a battle (who wants to see the battle strictly from the eyes of the general, eh?). For fantasy, it works well. It’s always a balance between the narration with pacing, description and dialogue. When I post to an online workshop, some reviewers think I have too much descriptions, others say too little. I end up doing what I think is best, and often that also takes into account who the reviewer is. Some I have come to know through the years and I hold their opinions in high regard.


    1. Mike, you bring up a great point. Writing, like all art, is completely subjective. And, there will always be the majority population, who prefers things to be more in line with certain formulas of writing which is considered mainstream, and the minority population who see (or at least believe they do) only works that can be called “literature” as the true art. You’ll never please everyone, so just as you said, you have to do what is right for you. Great post Mike!


  3. Good advice and thoughts. If the writer gives me too much interpretation, I feel insulted and it takes me out of the story. While some detail is necessary, the reader can experience vicariously if allowed their own interpretation of some things. A delicate balance sometimes.
    Thanks for the thoughts.


    1. Neva, you are absolutely correct. We have to trust in the intelligence of our readers. In the improv comedy group I’m a part of, our coach always says to play at the top of our intelligence. We have to do that as writers as well, but also we have to know that readers will be doing the same. Thanks Neva!


  4. Craig, love your post. I always look forward to your post, because I know I’ll learn something. I have readers who come up to me and give me their interpretation of one of my books. Their interpretations are nothing like I had in mind, but that’s okay, they enjoyed it. Cher’ley


  5. So enjoyed your post, Craig! “The writer hands the reader a flashlight and a map, then points toward the path that will begin their journey” — great quote! I like to say about my children’s books that I “weave subtle lessons” into the writing. I enjoy encouraging and inspiring my readers, and I hope they experience that when they read my words. Thanks for a great post!


  6. I heard a quote once that writers don’t really finish a story, they just abandon it at some point and move on to the next one. I can relate to that. I also get a kick meeting people who’ve read my book and see all these meanings in name choices or actions that I never intended but who cares, it’s part of the process. 🙂 Nice post.


  7. That leaving it up to the reader is so true, Craig. Some review comments can tell you what a reader’s interpretation is and they can be quite surprising! Good post, thank you.


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