Detailed characterization can be left to the reader’s imagination unless some personal facet contributes to the plot, such as the obsessive-compulsive disorder of the character Monk, created by Andy Breckman. In Monk’s case, his disorder is so severe that when writer Lee Goldberg wrote novels using the character, he had no need to explain. Readers garner personal facets through the characters’ behavior, expressions, thoughts and speech, without the writer telling them. But there is another, similar dilemma a writer faces, a sticky wicket in which I stumble and fight over with editors. I’m unsure that there is a definitive answer. How much explanation should a writer provide to ensure that a reader “gets it?”
My solution has been to spell out my point to the reader, either through a character’s thoughts or through description provided by the protagonist. In doing so, I risk insulting the reader’s intelligence. Insulting people is so not my intention. To clarify a scene, I’ll add a line that fortifies a point, especially if a technical detail such as equipment or forensic tests of some kind are utilized in the scene, only to have it redlined by an editor as redundant. The problem is that when I don’t explain a given point or add that fortifying sentence, editors tell me to provide more explanation. The feeling of hitting my head against the wall never felt so real.
For example, in the last paragraph of the Christmas short story, "The Christmas Present," which I posted last month, my editor and I wrangled over the information I presented.
My mission seemed complete. Dimples met all the qualifications I had on my list, but the case and his lack of middle-age spread still made me suspicious. I decided to hang around, at least until Valentine’s Day. If Bernard doesn’t come through with a dozen red roses, I’ll perfect my skill with rubber bands.
My editor correctly stated that since the angel/late husband really didn’t do anything to complete the mission the first sentence was confusing. I left it as written because I wanted the reader to conclude that 1) the angel was deluding himself, or 2) God had a hand in the caper. Either conclusion the reader drew was acceptable to me. When I told the editor what I had decided, I was told that the angel should acknowledge his lack of influence on the romance or mention God’s hand in the romance. (Although the editor liked the ending and knew it somehow worked.)
By taking the editor’s advice, wouldn’t I have insulted the reader’s intelligence or impeded their own interpretation? In a situation where I normally over explain, and in this situation I felt virtuous in not spelling out the solution out to the reader, I was told to provide more explanation.
As a reader, does the writer explaining what meaning should be taken from a particular portion of the script insult you? Or are you reassured by definitiveness? As a writer, do you face the same dilemma and how do you avoid insulting the reader while satisfying editors? Do you feel damned if you do and damned if you don’t?