Three Ways To Stop Your Readers Feeling “Out Of Their Depth”

Whilst writing a comedic game review yesterday, I ended up remembering my old GCSE Maths lessons and how stressful they were. This then made me think about the subject of being “out of your depth”.

Although I made a bit of a melodramatic joke of it in the review, one of the main reasons why I still despise mathematics to this day is because I was bumped up to the top class just before my GCSE course started… where everyone else in the class had three years’ worth of extra knowledge and it was assumed that I did too. Add to that a rather draconian teacher and frequently-confusing classwork, and I was left feeling somewhat out of my depth. Yes, I did well in the exam – but it put me off of maths for life!

Although a “baptism of fire” approach can sometimes work, it is just as likely to backfire. Nowhere is this more true than in creative works, where the audience is a lot more free to choose what they experience and whether they continue reading, watching, playing etc… But there are valid reasons why creative people love to drop the audience in at the deep end.

Some genres, such as the cyberpunk genre, rely on “overloading” the audience with visual or narrative information in order to create the sense of a dense, futuristic setting. Fantasy novels tell long, epic complex stories that “require” giant description-heavy and jargon-heavy doorstep-sized novels. JRPG-style videogames often require the player to practice for quite a long time before the game truly becomes enjoyable. I could go on for a while….

But, how can you avoid your readers experiencing the off-putting feeling of being “out of their depth”?

1) Be friendly or interesting: If you’re telling an information-dense story, then there are two options available to you.

You can write in a style that is easy to read and which makes the audience feel like they are hanging out with an old friend (so that they’ll stick around, even if they don’t fully understand what is going on). Or you can add something interestingly dramatic and/or mysterious to the early parts of your story that will make your audience feel curious enough to keep reading, despite feeling confused.

Combining these two things is also a good idea too. The thing to remember is that the audience are more likely to stick around if they feel that they are actually going to enjoy the experience. So, an interesting narrator or a dramatic beginning can reassure audiences that the effort that they’re going to have to put into your story will be worthwhile.

2) Start simple: Most “complex” computer and video games will start with an easy tutorial level of some kind or another. Sometimes, this can be a literal tutorial. But, more often, it is just an easier level that gives the player a chance to learn and practice in a low-pressure environment. Although these levels annoy the hell out of experienced gamers, they are there to help new players. Writers can learn a lot from this!

So, start your story with a more “simple” opening chapter. Yes, you might want to tell a thrillingly futuristic cyberpunk story about how a NeoTokyo hack crew mindjacks the cyborg CEO of GeneTeknotiX Industries using a Mogilev Mole virus to crack the neuro-locks on the mega-corp’s backup datavault and gain admin access to the core BIOS of consciousness itself. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t put all of this stuff in the opening chapter!

Start your story with something a bit more small-scale and understandable… then gradually add the complex stuff later.

For example, William Gibson’s classic cyberpunk novel “Neuromancer” doesn’t start with lots of futuristic computer hacking. It starts with the main character visiting a bar and feeling somewhat down on his luck. Yes, the opening chapter still contains a lot of futuristic jargon but it is kept to a very slightly lower level until the reader can get used to Gibson’s style of narration.

So, make sure that the beginning of your story is something a little bit more small-scale and simple. Another classic example of this is the beginning of G.R.R Martin’s “A Game Of Thrones“.

Yes, the novel itself is filled with complex medieval-style politics and more characters than you can shake a stick at. But, the opening chapter is a self-contained horror story about a group of soldiers being attacked by mysterious monsters. Not only does this intrigue the reader, but it also gives them a chance to get used to Martin’s dense, slow-paced narrative style without being overloaded with character names, politics, background information etc…

Likewise, even Frank Herbert’s amazing sci-fi epic “Dune” begins with a smaller-scale scene (containing some occasional background information about the story’s “world”) where a character undergoes a dangerous test, rather than plunging the reader directly into the novel’s fascinatingly complex fictional world and political system.

3) Length, editing and segmentation: Long things can be off-putting because of the amount of time that new audience members have to invest in them. People are more likely to watch an unknown 90 minute film on impulse or pick up an unknown 200-400 page novel on impulse than they are to watch a 120+ minute film or read a giant 600+ page doorstopper.

So, if possible, keep your story as short and focused as possible. Edit ruthlessly. Or, failing that, find some way to break your story up into more manageable pieces. Whether this involves shorter chapters or perhaps a series of shorter self-contained novels (so that the audience doesn’t feel like they have to buy an entire series), make it manageable!

The detective and thriller genres are excellent examples of this kind of thing. Each story by an author may feature the same fictional character and/or setting, but each novel in a series can often be read on it’s own and/or in any order. This means that it’s a lot easier for the audience to just pick up a book and start reading, instead of worrying about investing time and money in a long, continuous series.

Just don’t fall for the common fantasy genre pitfall of segmenting your story… and then making each segment both off-puttingly gigantic and part of a continuous series (that has to be read in order!).


Anyway, I hope that this was useful šŸ™‚

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