Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Writer’s intuition is that shapeless, near-wordless instinct that tells you how stories work. Intuition has you cut out a line without quite knowing why, add a moment that no-one else could think of, or hold something back for later even though you don’t even really know what’s going to happen later.
But useful as intuition is, it can be hard to make your peace with trusting it.
You’ve been going back and forth for days over a plot twist. Your gut says it works, but your brain keeps throwing up ways it could go wrong. Which should you side with?
Like a good-quality girdle, I’m supporting your gut. Here’s why.
Every writer is a reader
To be a writer of any quality you must be a reader. If you don’t take pleasure in words, don’t enjoy stories, then you’re ill equipped to write them. This means that every writer is both a producer and a consumer of their own art. There’s no way to separate the person who enjoys stories from the person who’s putting one together.
So how does this speak to your intuition? Because the writer is an architect. They worry and fret and plot and improve and backtrack. The writer lives in your head. On the other hand, the reader enjoys. They may seek to put their enjoyment into words, but that’s after the fact. The reader in you knows what they like even before they can say why. The reader lives in your gut.
Of course the writer may be a good deal smarter, but the golden rule of writing is that you’re writing for the reader. Stories are meant to entertain. Get that right and you’re afforded the privilege of making an argument, or sharing an experience, but first and foremost the reader should feel engaged with what’s in front of them. So if the writer and the reader disagree on something, go with your target audience.
But what about when your intuition clashes with another reader’s feedback?
Consistent is better than right
While you should always listen to feedback from beta readers, you need to examine that feedback through the lens of your own intentions and goals. It may be that they’re right, or they raise a valid point, but that doesn’t mean their ideas become the most important thing. Many authors take beta reader feedback as gospel, bending over backwards to address all of their suggestions. While you shouldn’t ignore any issues raised by beta readers you need to ensure consistency in your narrative.
By consistency I mean the way you tell the story, your authorial voice and the fluency of the choices you make in your narrative. Every story communicates something of its author, and readers are incredibly sensitive to the consistency of this communication.
Suspension of disbelief hinges on the reader’s ability to stop acknowledging that they’re reading a story. They can do this by learning the hundreds of idiosyncrasies of the author and accepting them as normal. This isn’t a conscious effort any more than authors are aware of every little aspect of their own style, but it’s incredibly important.
When you write from your gut you can’t help but write naturally—your style is innate after all—but when you allow your own doubts, or another reader’s feedback, to overrule your gut you can lose access to the idiosyncrasies of your natural style.
This, more than any error or leap of faith, will test your readers’ suspension of disbelief. This is what I mean by ‘consistent is better than right’. Readers will find it much easier to follow a huge leap in the story than they will to adjust to something that feels inconsistent with the way it’s been told.
Your intuition may be wrong, but following it will allow you to write in a way that the reader finds more comfortable than the right choice in an unfamiliar voice.
You know the story best
Finally, there’s the fact that you know your own story best. Hopefully you know the untold backstory of every character, the history of their world, and that puts you in a prime position to know what makes sense and what doesn’t.
That doesn’t put your judgement beyond question, but it does mean that you’re working with more information than anyone else. If it feels right to you then it most likely is. If it’s not working for beta readers then the problem may be that you haven’t shared enough of the surrounding context to make your idea work.
This, in fact, is the best piece of advice for following your writer’s intuition: don’t ignore your gut decisions, but do rewrite to justify them. As discussed in our article on plot holes, the author is a time traveller. You can go back to any point in the story and add justification for a later scene. This means that no matter how outlandish or unreasonable your gut instinct may be, you will always have the tools to accommodate it.
If the reader loves it, if it can be written in the writer’s style, if it rings true to the person who knows the story best, and if it can be justified by the author, then it deserves to be in the story. Be brave, it’s the difference between a good story and one that’s unforgettable.
Have you followed your gut and loved the results, or been left wishing you’d listened to your head? Let me know in the comments.