When I was growing up, we would wake up on Easter morning and find baskets of jelly beans and foil-wrapped chocolate bunnies sitting in cellophane grass. But the main event of the day was an egg hunt. My mom would tuck lavender, yellow, and pink hard-boiled eggs under bushes and between tulip leaves. My sister and I, in colored dresses with ruffled pinafores, would hunt for them and try to fill our baskets.
Now that I have my own family, we still dye hard-boiled eggs and we still do egg hunts, but the ready-filled basket has disappeared. With our egg hunts now done with candy-filled plastic eggs, maybe it felt like too much sugar. Or maybe the Easter Bunny tradition didn’t enchant me, because it was too easy. Finding already-filled baskets of candy wasn’t as fun as going hunting for the candy.
The way writers and readers interact is similar. I used to think I needed to give everything upfront to the reader — who the characters are, how they got there, and which events led to the trouble. If I didn’t, I worried they would feel confused or lost.
But giving people too much information at once engenders another problem — boredom. As I read other writers’ work as part of the Academy I’m in, I’ve noticed how exciting it is to be dropped into the middle of a scene and have to figure out where I am and what’s going on.
Readers don’t want to start a book wading through long explanations of where and when the protagonist was born. They don’t want a list of his or her characteristics. They want to learn about characters little by little, observing what they do and say. With these clues, like hidden eggs, they begin to piece together a picture, a story, a world.
As readers, we get to make our own decisions about what happened and why. Co-creating a story — filling our baskets, egg by egg — is as my 9-year-old daughter would say, “so satisfying.”
Reading is like going on an Easter egg hunt. A writer offers a reader a basket, and asks: do you want to go on my adventure? The work of the writer is to make a hunt that is challenging, but not such that the reader gets frustrated and gives up. We are creating an experience of constant discovery for the reader: entertaining them, delighting them, and trusting them to be as ingenious as we may aspire to be.