Respect the Reader’s Imagination

One of the hardest things to learn, if you want to write fiction, is when to shut up and let the reader’s imagination take over. If you can’t learn to shut up, you might as well go into politics.

To me, the art of writing fiction is to cause pictures to be created in the reader’s mind–partly by what you have written, and partly by the reader’s own imagination. I know I’ve succeeded whenever a reader says something to me like this: “I felt like I was there!” That’s when you know you’ve done it right.

You learn how to do this by reading and reading and reading, and by writing and writing and writing. It’s not something that can be taught in 12 easy lessons.

A friend of mine wrote a novel in which he spent a lot of time telling you exactly what each character was wearing–which had no bearing at all on the story, and only served to slow the pace of the action. I mean, we’re not going to imagine the characters as nude, are we? He also spent a whole page getting some characters across a little stream, when he could just have said something like, “And then they crossed the stream.” He might have even gotten away without mentioning the stream at all.

When you set a scene, you want your readers to be able to “see” it. But you also have to remember that each of them will see it in his own way–and that that’s perfectly all right! If you don’t provide enough descriptive detail, no one will imagine much of anything. But if you provide too much, you’re trying to dominate the reader, and it won’t work. He can always close your book and never open it again if he feels you’re trying to boss him around.

This free lesson on the Art of Writing Fiction is brought to you by me, the unacknowledged master of fantasy.

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