So … I picked that title because it looked and read better than my other alternatives. One of which was “The Heavy Hand of Whatever” which really didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Another was the several knit-together topics that this post was to cover … which would leave you, readers, with a giant string to look at. Then the last was a giant string (______) in place of “the Writer.”
Oh, right, before I dive into things don’t forget: April 19th is a one day sale of all my works in honor of my birthday! That is one day away! Or possibly less … or maybe even in the past, depending on when you read this post. Hopefully you read it in time. Part of the goal I’m going for is for everyone who’s enjoyed one of my books to share their favorite somehow while the sale is on, so get ready! You can check this post for a quick reminder of all the sales. Got it? Good!
So, back to the mysterious topic at hand. This is one of those posts that was actually inspired by a book that I’m currently forcing my way through. Yes, forcing … It’s not a very good book. But, since what’s causing me to not enjoy it is an easily identifiable flaw, or rather a series of them … My mind immediately turned to this blog and started putting together a blog post. A blog post I knew would be written late, since I had work today, and I have family visiting tomorrow.
So … here’s the biggest problem with this book I’m trying to shove through (which, if you’re wondering where it came from, originated at my local library as my random pick of “Let’s try this”). Okay, second biggest problem next to its plot being ripped off pretty much wholesale from any generic book or film that has a Skynet plot. And this problem is … Crud, I barely know where to start. Technically, it’s a lot of problems all wrapped up under one giant umbrella, each one feeding off of one another to create a morass of issues. But at it’s core?
The book is extremely heavy-handed in it’s approach to, well, everything from the plot to the theme.
Now, to the best of my knowledge, I don’t believe we’ve talked about the concept of “having a heavy hand” on this blog before. So let’s take an aside and discuss this. A book that is heavy handed is one where the creator does not trust the audience to figure things out. To figure anything out really, though some authors will only mistrust one or two things. The result is that they start to amplify the elements of the book to make certain that the audience gets.
Yes, this eventually devolves into the author shouting at the reader with a megaphone, over and over again “DID YOU GET THIS?” To which the unfortunate audience thinks “Yes, several pages ago, please drop it” while the author continues to pummel their mind with unneeded words.
In other words, heavy handed writing is exactly what the definition of heavy-handed is. Overly forceful and oppressive. With a dash of clumsy thrown in for good measure.
There are two tightly-related causes behind this. The first is the author not knowing their audience. In not knowing them, they underestimate them, and overcompensate.
The second is the author thinking that they’re smarter than any audience they might have. So they need to help them along.
Okay, the first is a problem fixed best with a dash of getting to know one’s audience. Recognize the age group and intelligence of the individual you’re aiming your books at. A good editor helps too. One who can hopefully point out when you’ve gotten off track.
The second … well, you really can’t fix that but with humility. And that’s known as a bitter pill for a good reason. It takes guts to sit and listen to someone meticulously solve your complicated plot and theme in seconds and admit that maybe they weren’t a fluke. Courage, too. So yes, you’re hearing here: humility is a good trait for a writer.
“Okay, all well and good,” you might think. “Solid advice. Be humble, know my audience. Is that it?”
Well … no. Because I don’t want this post to be supremely short, and I’m worried it’s not nearly complete without some better examples. We just talked about some of the causes of a story being heavy-handed from the perspective of the author, but there’s another angle we can talk about.
I want to talk about how this can manifests itself in the story. How being heavy handed actually materializes in what can be written. So let’s talk about some of the ways that this “oppressiveness” can manifest.
One of the first that comes to mind is foreshadowing. Now, we all like foreshadowing. It’s an extremely useful tool in the writer’s toolbox, one we should all be making use of in any story over a few thousand words.
But remember what I mentioned before about the heavy-handed author not trusting his readers to figure things out? Well … let me give you an example of how that panned out in the book I was reading. Good foreshadowing is light, a line here, or a thought there, that hints at the reader about what is to come. It flits in and out, barely calling the reader’s attention to it, so that the reader acknowledges that “this is important” but isn’t pulled out of what’s happening.
This book … did not do that. Oh wow, did it not do that. No, it hammered the point across with the subtly of a sledgehammer going through fine China. I kind you not, on one page, a bare few pages in, there was not just an instance of foreshadowing, There were three solid paragraphs of it. All clustered together. I would call it just outright calling the plot except for the fact that each one of them kind of ended on a note of “but that wouldn’t happen” or something similar.
On. The same. Page.
Yeah, that’s overdoing it. Foreshadowing flits in and out. It’s a line or a faint mention of something that will be important later. What this book did was the equivalent of a documentary camera crew centering on something while the narration droned on about how it could possibly be significant.
Right, this is starting to sound cruel, so I’ll back off. Point is, the author made a few mistakes, the first of which was assuming that the audience wouldn’t pick up on one, or two, or three, or four, or five clues, and instead all but explained what was going on while sort of stepping back at the end and saying “But that’ll never happen. It’s just theory.”
Uh huh. Remember when you were a kid, and you asked a question about something dangerous, like a safety feature, and the adult who answered the question, after giving you a vague answer of what terrible thing could happen, followed up with “But that won’t happen?” And you probably felt slightly miffed, because anyone can see that if it wouldn’t happen, you wouldn’t need the safety feature in the first place? Yeah, that’s what happens when you go overboard with foreshadowing.
Your foreshadowing should be a hint of what’s to come. Not a declaration.
Now, on a side note, if you’re worried you might be too far one way or another, this is what Alpha readers are for. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, I love my Alpha readers for picking through my stories and leaving me notes like “This was a little too obvious because of this statement here” or “No, I didn’t see that connection hint there until you pointed it out, maybe make it a little stronger?”
You guys are awesome.
Anyway, that’s the power of Alphas. If you’re worried, reread it, but don’t instantly jump at changes. Think about it, maybe tweak it a little bit … and then see what your Alphas think.
Now, another area where the story can be heavy-handed (that yes, this book of mine has problems with): Metaphor.
Metaphor is a pretty straightforward concept: Describe one thing using the attributes of something else. Such as “She felt icy knives slide down her back.” Barring a very specific scene, we know that there aren’t any knives. It’s just a way of explaining it.
But you can be too heavy-handed with your metaphor. For start, you can make your metaphors a little to fast and thick. Moderation in all things.
But you can also be tempted to tie your metaphor into the story thematically … and again, this can backfire. Because metaphor is supposed to be something subtle but evocative. And if you tie it too closely, it stops being something that nods ever so slightly in the direction of your plot and instead becomes a distraction.
For example, that book I’m reading now? About an AI revolt and apocalypse? It has the main character have a tendency to think of things metaphorically, at all times … in terms of robots coming to get him.
No. Joke. I’m three pages in, the character is having a bad dream about his son, and describes the forces tearing them apart as “robotic tendrils from some unearthly machine.” Bearing in mind that this is a metaphor, not a description. Completely overwrought? Yes. It’s a bit like the forshadowing: Jarring and in the reader’s face. And all the metaphors are like this.
Look, metaphor is fun and entertaining. We like it. And it can perfectly compliment a work in the way cheese can compliment a burger. And you can weave it into the thematic elements of the story.
Just don’t … be too gung-ho about it. Don’t go too far. Keep in mind who your character is, what your narrative perspective is.
In what other areas can you be heavy handed? Theme, actually.
Look, like all things here, theme is good. But … you can let the reader figure it out on their own. This is 100% fine. Granted, have one first, (or more, if you’d like) and build the work around it. But don’t build on it so heavily that you’re telling your reader what it is (with a few exceptions I’m sure you can figure out on your own).
Let’s see … Character. You can be heavy handed there, outright stating motives rather than letting the reader deduce them. You can be heavy handed with plot, by repeating events over and over again like the reader has short-term memory problems. You can be heavy-handed with …. with …
Okay, so you can be heavy handed with just about anything, really. What it boils down to is overdoing an element of your story because you don’t trust your audience to figure it out or see it on their own. Overusing foreshadowing, tying in metaphor to theme to tightly, repetition … pretty much any part of your story.
Now, one final warning, with all this said. Sometimes being a little less subtle is okay. Two characters realizing that they care for one another? You can be straightforward about that, provided straightforward doesn’t mean completely over-the-top. Moderate.
Wrapping up, because it’s late and I’m tired, just don’t … Just don’t baby your readers. Don’t be heavy handed. Trust them to figure things out, and if they don’t, then edit until enough of them do. Don’t be heavy-handed.
Good luck. Now get writing.