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Of Writers and Readers

(This article uses the singular gender neutral they, them and their when the gender of the antecedent is indefinite.)

I think of fiction as a collaborative effort between the writer and the reader. The writer provides the schema, and the reader fills in the blanks with their imagination. This requires respecting the reader, trusting their insight. Perhaps the best piece of writing advice I've ever received is "never tell the reader ANYTHING they can figure out for themself." After all, in the final analysis, the story resides in the imagination of the reader.

When the author provides information to the reader that the reader is perfectly capable of deducing, he robs the reader of the joy of imagining. In some cases even of the thrill of discovery. Put simply, the more you allow the reader to exercise their imagination, the more involved they become in the story. This is true both on the grand scale and in the minutia. On the grand scale the author wants the reader to discover the story, to arrive at an understanding in the manner of solving a puzzle, by putting together the various fragments provided by the author and filling in the blanks. As to the minutia, let me give an example. If I write, "George kept his eyes on the road, while his wife, Carol, studied the cornfields scrolling past the window," I'm telling the reader that Carol is George's wife. In most stories the writer can make the relationship between George and Carol clear without having to actually state it. By not explicitly stating the nature of the relationship, the writer allows the reader to wonder, and wondering is what keeps the reader engaged in the story. Granted, coming to realize that Carol is George's wife, or that Brad is William's boss, or that Lisa and Amanda are lesbian lovers are minor discoveries, but such minor discoveries add up. And what holds for relationships also holds for a character's age, race, profession or any other number of attributes. The less the author explicitly reveals the more the reader wonders, and the more the reader wonders, the deeper they are drawn into the story.

Remember the old adage show, don't tell. Telling entails explicitly revealing information, while showing allows the reader to exercise their imagination.

By the way, this is why the best writers make sparse use of adjectives, as well as adverbs. Adjectives tell, verbs show. Fat, lean, argumentative, decent tell us something about a person or thing; hoist, throw, lug, wheeze show us. Consider the following two sentences:

Walking uphill was difficult for Sam because he was so fat.
Sam panted and wheezed lugging his weight up the hill.

or,

Sandra was gorgeous.
Sandra turned heads wherever she went.

It is not necessary to tell the reader that Sam is fat or that Sandra is gorgeous. In fact, doing so cheats the reader out of the pleasure of seeing, of imagining. After all, the words imagery and imagine have the same root. Seeing is believing, and isn't story-telling all about the suspension of disbelief.

What do we mean by suspending disbelief? We mean imagining that the characters and the story are real. I am working in collaboration with my reader. I am asking them to imagine that the characters are alive and that the events unfolding truly happen, and the more I involve my reader in the creative process, the easier it is for them believe.

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