Lead Your Readers

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I see dances as metaphors that societies create for romance. In most dances older than me, the man “leads”, and the woman “follows”. The degree to which the man really leads can vary from a circle-sweeping Viennese Waltz, in which everyone knows more-or-less when to step where and the man’s “leading” is a mutually-agreeable fiction, to salsa or swing, where the woman may find herself spun in a circle or turned upside down with less than a second’s notice.

But whatever the dance, the man doesn’t drag the woman around the floor. He senses where they both are already going, and adds a flourish or twist. His movements should be congruent enough with what they’re both doing to be anticipated, but not so predictable as to be expected, for the same reason a woman might anticipate a present from her boyfriend on Valentine’s Day, but doesn’t want to tell him what to get her.[1]

(In club dancing, by contrast, there’s no leading, no following, no synchrony of movement, no interaction other than eye contact sometimes followed by grinding bodies together. Make of that what you will.[2])

Let’s see how far we can take dance, and leading in particular, as a metaphor for writing.

Leading in writing isn’t just foreshadowing. It’s leading the reader through the mutual creation of a story. If your character’s throwing a pot away symbolizes a rejection of love, you’ve got to draw the reader’s attention to it. Just tossing it out there is like trying to spin a woman without lifting your arm beforehand. (The arm lift says, “Get ready to spin.”) But having a character look at the broken pot and think it was “broken, like my heart”, is like yanking the woman’s arm to make sure she makes the turn. It gets you both through it, but it’s more work and it isn’t much fun for either person. Following has to be challenging, or it isn’t really dancing. A proper dance, like a proper story, is the work of two, not one.

To lead well, you must learn how to follow. Dancing the woman’s part teaches you which parts of the man’s movements are the leads, how obvious they need to be, and how irritating they are when overdone. It’s easy to know when you’ve missed a dance lead, because you stumble and run into people. But you can’t tell when you’ve missed an author’s lead; you just think the author is being stupid. So you need to pre-read for other authors and ask them to tell you what you missed.

Dancing the woman’s part also teaches you that the key to leading is not doing anything that feels like leading when you’re not trying to lead. That’s the TL;DR of this post. When I fail to follow some clue the author planted, it’s not usually because the author planted that clue poorly. It’s usually because I’m stupid. But when it’s not because I’m stupid, it’s because the author wrote many other beautiful things that looked like clues, like a dancer who keeps tugging at the woman’s arms even in the middle of a step.

Things look like clues if they’re vivid, unexpected, or repeated; if they stand out stylistically; if they get a lot of words. When William Gibson wrote, “The sky was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel,” it wasn’t just to say that the sky was the color of a television tuned to a dead channel. Writing “The sky was grey” in such a long and unexpected way was like highlighting it in yellow and writing “Symbolism!” in the margin.

Have you ever bought a used book from the college bookstore and found it had every sentence on some pages highlighted? Don’t do that. Seriously. It makes photocopies and scans hard to read. Also, don’t highlight everything in your story with a vivid or startling description. If you have a loving description of how the tramp handles his cigar, but it’s just a cigar, you may want to dial it back a bit if you don’t want to foreshadow a certain narrative turn. After the reader’s wasted enough time puzzling over red herrings, she’ll assume everything that stands out is just another meaningless yank on her arms. [3]

The better you get at dancing, the fewer people you can dance your best with.[4] The most exciting dance moves require a great lead and a great follower. There are writers, like James Joyce or E. E. Cummings, who seem to me to have been very good, and then to have become unreadable. Whether that’s because they were corrupted by too much praise, or because they went beyond my ability to dance with them in their own specialized style, is probably unknowable, if it’s even the sort of question that has an answer.

[Summary: Think of each line of your story as being like a movement made by a man leading a woman in a dance. The lead must be congruent to what has come before, yet not predictable. It must be strong enough to be followed, yet not obvious. And you must eliminate extraneous movements that could be mistaken for leads.]


1. I’m unsure if that alone requires a “sexist” tag.
2. I count it as a victory for the men.
3. No one has challenged me on this yet. This might be bad advice. From what I know of paperback romance novels, they take a different approach: Describe everything vividly all the time, and compensate for this by laying everything out explicitly for the reader.
4. I speak from observation, not from experience.

(NOTE: If you found this post sexist, please let me know in the comments. I knew footnote 2 implies men are… unromantic, but I thought it was funny enough to keep.)

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