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Let the Reader’s Imagination Do the Heavy Lifting

Are you piquing readers’ interest just enough, or drowning them in detail?

This is the kind of flowery I can get behind. (Flowery Piano by Andreas (CC BY-SA 2.0)

This is the kind of flowery we can get behind. Flowery Piano by Andreas (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In storytelling, description and detail translate what’s in your imagination into scenes and images in the reader’s mind. Can bloated description detract from your work, fill your reader’s brain with too much information, and distract them from the story? The answer is yes. In today’s post we’ll look at how to know when enough is enough.

From Terse to Turgid

Every author has a distinct style they cultivate over years of writing, called a voice. For example, Ernest Hemingway was known for short, declarative sentences devoid of flowery description. One of his most famous stories is this seemingly simple six-word story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Immediately, your imagination takes over, filling in the backstory behind this sad tale.

On the other end of the spectrum, Charles Dickens used “profuse linguistic creativity” in his work. Consider this passage from The Old Curiosity Shop:

The town was glad with morning light; places that had shown ugly and distrustful all night long, now wore a smile; and sparkling sunbeams dancing on chamber windows, and twinkling through blind and curtain before sleepers’ eyes, shed light even into dreams, and chased away the shadows of the night. Birds in hot rooms, covered up close and dark, felt it was morning, and chafed and grew restless in their little cells; bright-eyed mice crept back to their tiny homes and nestled timidly together; the sleek house-cat, forgetful of her prey, sat winking at the rays of sun starting through keyhole and cranny in the door, and longed for her stealthy run and warm sleek bask outside.

That Hallowed Middle Ground

Which style you like best is a matter of personal preference, of course, though one might argue that Dickens’ description of the town is prescriptive — he leaves nothing to your imagination. Regardless of how you feel about either of those authors and their styles, there is something to be said for finding that hallowed middle ground: enough description to fertilize your reader’s mind so that the story thrives in their imagination.

When it comes to detail and description, Canadian author Lisa Moore advocates giving the reader control:

The strongest fiction, for me as a reader, is that which allows me to create it in my head and, as a writer, I like to give the reader as much control as possible — I think that’s where the real pleasure lies.

She suggests that stories shift their shape, morphing depending on the reader and their experiences:

Stories never belong to the author who happens to write them down, they are also the creation of each individual reader….I sometimes imagine stories and novels are like the transparent film of soap that coats a child’s bubble wand — and the breath that blows it into a bubble, is the breath of the reader. The reader’s imagination gives a story shape and substance. It is a private and secret bubble of experience belonging solely to the reader, lasting for as long as the reading of the book last, ending with the turn of the final page, when the bubble bursts, and the ‘real’ world becomes solid again.

Ideas to Consider

Despite the fact that developing a voice is a very personal matter, here are a few things you can do to strengthen your writing:

  • Beware of redundancies. Consider these redundancies: “a cacophony of sound,” “combine together,” and “commute back and forth.” Examine each word you use. Omit needless words.
  • Be choosy about verbs. Did someone throw you the ball or did they hurl, fling, or toss it? In a general sense, each verb conveys the fact that the ball traveled toward you, though hurl, fling, and toss connote the effort the thrower used, which adds depth and lends an emotional quality to the sentence that “throw” lacks.
  • Have a trusted friend read your work. Ask them which questions ran through their mind as they read your piece. Were they sure of the location? Were they certain which character was doing the talking? A trusted reader can offer invaluable feedback on where you need to bolster your descriptions to aid the reader’s comprehension and where you might prune wordy passages.

No matter your voice or your personal prose preferences, the next time you’re writing a new piece or editing something you’ve already written, consider whether or not you’re allowing the reader the freedom to create a vivid picture in their mind, or whether you’re doing their job for them — knowing that the best works are a collaboration between writer and reader.

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  1. One semidisagreement, about verbs: it’s a matter of proportion whether to use a bland verb or a colorful one. Sometimes the reader gets important information from knowing whether the ball was hurled or tossed; sometimes, in the middle of a game with two outs and three runners on base, all that matters is that the pitcher threw the ball. What we want to know is whether or not the batter connected, and what happened after the shortstop caught that ball.

    And if every single verb is the most colorful choice possible, the story becomes overwrought. For instance, we don’t want to wade through dialog in which everyone shouts, barks, whimpers, hisses, and burbles. “Said” is colorless, but when we’re busy eavesdropping on a conversation between characters, “said” gets the job done without being distracting.

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    1. That’s a great distinction. Being choosy about verbs is important and the verb that best serves the story is the right one. Well said.

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      1. It may seem weird, but I have a collection of words I continuously update to avoid writing “said.” Here are some:
        groused, grumped, sulked, pronounced, demanded, shouted, exclaimed, whined, mumbled, murmured, whispered, shouted, bellowed, screeched, squeaked, blurted, cried., shrieked, blustered, hollered. wailed, barked, yelped, howled, growled, cheered, roared, trumpeted, declared, clucked, fussed, trilled, yammered, crowed, hissed, grunted, snarled, squawked, complained, groaned, moaned, yowled, whimpered, scolded, railed, spouted, yipped, protested, fussed, hooted, ranted, fumed, wheezed, panted, snapped, spouted, spewed, spat

        As you probably noticed, my voice is dramatic and silly!

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    2. The discussion gives really helpful insights for a beginner like me. Real good advice, I must say! As a whole, I liked this post showing multiple facets & effects of being terse to too wordy.

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    3. I agree. As a speaker, I choose words that my audience can easily understand. They do not bring a thesaurus when they attend my seminar…or when they read my blog. If a simple verb can achieve the purpose of a colorful verb…I go for the simple verb.

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      1. Obscure words don’t belong in a talk! It’s one thing to use an unusual word in writing; your readers have time for a double-take to be sure they didn’t see it wrong, and then they can mull over what it means in context or throw up their hands and hunt for a dictionary. But listeners? If they try to focus on just one unfamiliar word, they’ll miss your next two paragraphs.

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  2. I always have a thesaurus open when I write. I have run into too many authors who use the same 3 descriptors for the same character or mood and it drives me nuts, especially if they are writing a series. You don’t have to drown your reader in descriptions, but keep the words you use fresh and interesting. The English language has more adjectives than any other, so use them! I am hoping to finish my first novel this year :)

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    1. I love my thesaurus as well. I did read something recently that gave me pause: It was a quote, I think from Vonnegut or Bradbury, that if you’re writing with your thesaurus, using it, then you’re using the wrong word. In a way, I think I understand the point – not pick language that is too removed from your reader. What do you think about that?

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      1. Point taken, you shouldn’t go fishing for fancy words. But, I think the question of “who is my reader?” can be both constructive and destructive. Constructive in that it can help to give you guidelines like language level pitched lower for YA readers, but destructive in that you are making assumptions about your readers that could be wrong. Personally, I like to see words I don’t know and look them up. It is part of the joy of both writing and reading (for me) to turn that phrase just right or digest a particularly delicious sentence. It seems like we should let readers find the writing they like rather than limit ourselves by what we think we know is going on in someone else’s head.

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      2. not pick language that is too removed from your reader.

        I like this idea — it speaks to using language your reader will relate to — words that routinely roll off your tongue. I don’t know that I could ever lose my trusty thesaurus — I use it a lot to try and job my memory for the precise word I need, that’s just beyond my consciousness.

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  3. Thanks for a very insightful post. I like the quote you shared from Lisa Moore about giving the reader control. Also like the suggestions you made at the end about verb selection and so forth. Will keep these suggestions in mind as I try to improve my blog and writing in general. Thanks again :-)

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  4. Well now that was sure a scentsational pic to illustrate the point with! Great article and have we ever had a six word writing challenge on WordPress yet? If so I would like to read the pings. If not…

    Can we try that challenge soon?

    Oh see, it was really easy! ;-)

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  5. That’s really helpful stuff. I seem to spend lots of editing time taking descriptiveness out and then putting it back in again. But the “throw-hurl -toss” thing about the ball really encapsulate the point…. or does it explain the point..perhaps not point but…

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  6. I wonder what it is like to play that piano. Might be fun. I must admit that I do develop mental images when I read. I once saw a movie that I had never seen before but it gave me the strangest feeling that I knew all about it. After a lot of thought I realized I had read the book many years before.
    Leslie

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  7. I remember this from my English Lit classes in college a few years ago. The professors always advised us of not being too wordy but making sure we were using more descriptive words.

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  8. excellent. thank you. I agree completely- there is so much value to giving the reader the benefit of the doubt in that they’ll be able to deduce their own conclusions. Also the point you make on redundancies is a good one to keep in mind. Cheers.

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  9. Finding ones own voice is important. Being comfortable with that voice so that the words easily flow is key. Otherwise we risk sitting, staring, and not writing out of fear or frustration. I do love the suggestion for a six word writing contest the Little Miss Menopause suggested.

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  10. This was enormously helpful and full of things for me to consider as I slog through reading my very, very rough first draft. My background and education is in screenwriting, with rules that dictate vagueness as a matter of courtesy. If you describe the set or costumes more than necessary, you step on the production and costume design professionals toes and so on and so forth. It’s great for teaching you how to leave out details that aren’t 100% necessary to the plot or characters, but it makes for a very dry read and a rough transition for screenwriters aiming to take on novels. This post was very encouraging as I grapple with when, where, and how much decisions regarding small details in my revision.

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  11. Good advice – it’s hard to know where that middle ground is, sometimes, especially with children’s literature. Sometimes you’re balancing introducing something that might be foreign to the reader while also trying to allow them to imagine it in their own way. It’s so tricky!

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  12. A collaboration between writer and reader? Wow!
    I love the way this sounds and it surprises me that I never thought of it that way.
    I have always considered suspense, but now I know that even details of description can make a difference to how much work we leave to the reader.
    A creative reader can create awesome scenes in the mind, if some details are creatively left out, but with leads.
    Beautiful points. Truly profound thoughts!

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  13. You need to remember two things about Dickens: his work was written in quite a prescriptive society so the concept of suggestion quite alien to them. Secondly, he was writing in a time when fiction was often read aloud – when people are reading to us (certainly as a younger audience) we want to writer to fill in the gaps as well as use their tone and voice to add the context.

    Otherwise, some fantastic analyses!

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  14. This is so insightful and on reflection, I have a lot of work to do. Can some of the more experienced bloggers/writers read the attempts of this novice and leave your comments?

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  15. These are the most helpful words I have read since beginning this writing journey. I am in the process of starting a novel…….and when I say I’m in the process I mean, I haven’t yet begun – but I have lots of ideas. Thank You!!

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