Easy: his amazing powers of observation. The way nothing gets past him. The way he treats no details as meaningless, from the scuff of a shoe indicating a surreptitious midnight stroll across the moors, to the subtle asymmetry of a suspect’s gait indicating an old war wound.
Here’s the thing. Your readers are exactly like Sherlock Holmes. They miss nothing. Every detail matters.
If you’re a criminal, the very notion of trying to sneak something past Mr. Holmes should make you nervous. If you’re a writer building the very world into which your Holmesian reader will stroll, you should also be nervous.
But not too nervous. Because there are some guidelines you can use to help you create a world that will direct your reader’s investigation in exactly the way you’d like it to go.
Two kinds of detail
Your narrative will contain hundreds—if not thousands—of details. Readers will take some of them at face value. In other words, they’ll believe you just because you tell them. Others will raise readers’ skepticism—sending your readers on a mental process of correlation, fact-checking, and deduction—before they decide whether to believe you or not.
What will readers take at face value?
Broadly, readers will accept anything in your story’s world that is visible, no questions asked. Or audible, smellible, et cetera. Imagine your reader as a ghost in the scene, present for the action but not interacting with the characters. Or a fly on the wall, or whatever metaphor you like.
Anything our ghost-fly reader could directly observe, that’s what readers will accept without question.
Note that point of view and narrative style play a role. Modern narrative deals rather commonly in inner monologue—the direct presentation of the viewpoint character’s thoughts—so I suppose we must imagine our ghost-fly to be a selectively psychic ghost-fly.
What will readers question?
Everything else. All other details—all other facts and miscellaneous information in your story—reside in the world of inference. The world of things that cannot be seen, but must be deduced.
If Sherlock Holmes walks into a pub and is told by the bartender that Mr. Farthington is as honest as the day is long, naturally he’ll be skeptical. People lie. Perhaps Mr. Farthington owes the bartender a sizeable tab, and if Mr. Farthington gets set up for murder, well, that’s fifty quid the bartender will never see in his coffers!
In this metaphor, your reader is Holmes, and you’re the bartender. If you flat out tell us of Mr. Farthington’s abiding honesty, we’re going to be skeptical.
The reason is because honesty--a quality of personality--is fundamentally not visible. We can’t see it directly. Mr. Farthington does not (unless you are writing a very uncommon genre indeed) go about his days with a glowing HONEST MAN sign floating above his head, placed there by the infallible hand of the Almighty.
No. Honesty isn’t like that. Being invisible, we must infer it from whatever we can see. For invisibles such as personality traits, moods, emotions, and other mental states, that’s usually behavior. We only know that Mr. Farthington is honest if we observe him behaving that way. Actions speak louder than words.
Who do readers trust?
If Holmes doesn’t trust the bartender, who does he trust? Almost no one. His skepticism is legendary. There is, in fact, only one person Sherlock Holmes trusts: Sherlock Holmes. He trusts only that which he can verify from the application of his considerable deductive powers to the direct evidence he has collected with his own senses.
So who do readers trust? Yeah, that’s right. Not you. You’re a writer. Worse, a novelist, a confabulator by your very definition! Readers will trust you to tell them the obviously visible sun is shining in your story, as long as the viewpoint supports the direct observation of that fact. For everything else, they’ll only trust their own deductions.
The important details are invisible.
The kicker is this: chances are, the critical details in your story are invisible ones. How does one character feel about another? Feelings aren’t directly visible. Who owes who money? Debts aren’t directly visible. Who was on the moor last Thursday night? The past is not directly visible. Why does Mr. Farthington so staunchly oppose the road the council wishes to build through the heath south of town? Who knows? Characters’ motivations are not directly visible.
Here’s irony for you: readers will never trust you about the very things your story is almost sure to hinge on. Alas, what’s a poor writer to do?
Treat your readers like Holmes
If readers won’t trust you about the important stuff, all you can do is exploit their trust in themselves. Treat them like Sherlock Holmes: Don’t ever tell the reader something invisible.
Only give them the visible evidence for it.
Don’t tell us how honest Mr. Farthington is. Show him popping into the pub with a lost wallet, looking to return it to its owner. Don’t tell us he owes the barkeeper money. When the wallet’s grateful owner gives him a fiver as a reward, show him paying down part of his tab. Don’t tell us why the heath means so much to him. Show him carrying a bundle of yellow daisies into the heath, kneeling down, then returning slowly, several minutes later, without them.
(See what I did there? I didn’t tell you why he values the heath. But I’ll bet from imagining that tiny little vignette, you have a pretty good idea. You’re a reader too. And your deductive powers are every bit the equal of your readers’.)
Readers miss nothing. Every detail matters to them, as it well should. One thing you can count on is that readers will treat everything in your story as evidence for something left unsaid. If you tell us the sun is shining on the heath, we’ll immediately assume you want us to know that Mr. Farthington is going to come back hot and sweaty.
Your job is to know what you want readers to believe in the first place, then pick the visible details which constitute evidence for those critical, invisible things. Let the reader’s trust in their own deductions drive the believability of your entire story.
Jason Black is a freelance developmental editor, a.k.a. “book doctor,” who lives and works in the Seattle area. He is the author of several novels. His latest novel, Pebblehoof, is about a frontier girl, the wild prairie horse she befriends, and the troubles they have with the corrupt railroad barons who want to steal her family’s land. It is available in print, Kindle, and Nook editions at http://bit.ly/Pebblehoof. Learn more about Jason or read his blog at http://www.PlotToPunctuation.com.
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