While researching my next book (which is due to mu editor far sooner than I’d like to admit), I came across this terrific passage in The Norse Myths, retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland and published by Pantheon Books, New York, in 1980:
What was his secret? It was as much in his manner as in his mine of understanding. Questions of fact he answered with simple facts. But to ask Kvasir for his opinion—What shall I say? What do you think? What shall I do?—did not always mean getting a direct answer. Sitting back in his ill-fitting clothes, as often as not with his eyes closed, he would listen to recitals of problems and sorrows with a kind, grave, blank face, He took in and set everything in a wider frame. He never intruded or insisted; rather, he suggested. Often enough he answered a question with another question. He made gods and men, giants and dwarfs feel that they had been helped to answer their own questions.
To give the passage some conext—it describes Kvasir, the sage, whose blood was used to make the mead of poetry (well before OSHA standards were enforced in the workplace).
Odin, in eagle form, delivers the mead of poetry
The passage resonated with me on a number of levels. The educator in me responded to it because I think the words capture the habits that are exhibited by many of the best teachers I’ve known. But the writer in me responded to the passage, too. It caused me to reflect on one of the tasks I always find challenging when I’m pulling together a new work—figuring out how much information to give the reader, and when. I think this issue is particularly relevant when I’m writing a mystery (as I am right now). How many clues does the reader need? Am I being too obvious? Or am I being so vague that no one has any idea what I’m talking about? How do you strike a balance?
The more I think about these questions, the more I find myself going back to the fact that the quote struck a chord with both the educator and the writer in me. Maybe there’s not so much of a separation there, after all. I was always very sympathetic to constructivism, the educational theory that suggests people learn best when given the tools and experiences they need to construct their own understanding. In the end, isn’t that what we hope for as writers? That through our words we give readers the tools they need to construct an understanding of our story-worlds. What does the world look, sound, and smell like? What do the characters feel? I suppose one interpretation of the old “show don’t tell” adage is that it’s constructivism applied to writing.
Perhaps one way to think about how much information to give the reader, then, is to think about Kvasir’s hierarchy of information. Answer questions about facts with facts. After all, facts aren’t understanding. They’re the tools readers need to construct an understanding. So if there’s something the reader needs to know, don’t bury it too deep. But when it comes to the higher order level of thinking—understanding a character’s motivation, for example—be more cautious. Never intrude or insist; rather, suggest. And hope that in the end you give gods and people, giants and dwarfs the tools they need to make their own meaning of your story.