I’ve mentioned this topic on numerous occasions before today–usually not positively. With this in mind I should clarify that I don’t consider the reader’s imagination some heinous devilry to subvert or an annoyance holding back my genius. You can’t write a working story without it. At the end of the day it’s the reader’s imagination which converts your words into something more.
You also need them to buy your hallucination-inducing scrawls. Yes, I’m saying books are drugs.
So, again, readers matter. If you want to know whether an author is a terrible person, find out whether they’re prone to belching bile at their fans. I open with all this because there’s some risk I might come across as hostile to readers here. Their imagination makes the book work for them, so you’d be a fool not to work with it.
The thing is, your readers will usually spend less than a day in total reading through a given book. Even longer fantasy novels (Brobdingnagian monoliths like The Wheel of Time and The Stormlight Archive notwithstanding) take the average person 14 hours or less to finish. That’s a respectable timeframe when spread across sparse free hours, obviously, and if you do your job well they’ll squeeze far more than this from rereads. Here we come to the contentious part: “Let the reader imagine things for themselves” makes writing tick. Reader imagination has to be there.
I just can’t help but notice that much of the writing advice I consider worst leans heavily on it. I’m not going to go in depth on fight scenes again because I have a whole series of articles for that now. Suffice to say that’s one favorite area. Bear with me, because it’s time to ruin some perfectly good tinfoil and shiny up our heads: I strongly suspect that many writers use this justification when they just have no plan for pulling off an idea.
There’s no shame in being unable to figure a writing element out. It happens to all of us all the damn time, and even the best writers need multiple drafts to hit their A-game. The reason I dislike this advice’s current application is that, most of the time, it has nothing to do with the writing itself. It’s an abstract principle we can’t readily translate to a working concept. I’m at the risk of using abstractions to explain why abstractions are useless, so let’s concretize this sumbitch.
Here is a picture of Skybleeder:
I know you’re all amply intelligent enough to figure this is the spear I was referring to with my snarky header image. It is indeed very big and very nice. However, “very big and very nice” can be applied to penises if you happen to appreciate them. Look, yes, I know that in practical terms male genitalia always appear larger to their owners than they actually are. Metaphors are often silly this way.
Phallic comparisons don’t make me uncomfortable anymore, but the purpose and emotions involved with a male member are–I certainly hope!–quite different from those associated with a nine-foot cutting spear. It’s not prudish to say that if you want your readers awed by a weapon’s presence on the battlefield and they’re cracking dick jokes, you probably went wrong somewhere along the line.
Unless you’re writing erotica, obviously.
Now, you may be wondering:
“Cullen, why describe that spear with words when you can just do gorgeous art of it?”
Because this gorgeous art took me FIFTY FUCKING HOURS and received a single like. “Well maybe people just don’t care about–”
Forged in Fire exists and plenty of readers are big fans of Caesura from the Kingkiller Chronicle. Weapons are cool. That may be a troublesome idea with horrifying implications about human psychology, but even those of you who don’t believe it yourselves have to admit there are plenty who do. Your feelings are valid, but so are mine; sometimes my posts just arrive at the wrong time, and sadly Skybleeder’s gallery met that same fate.
Even if killing tools weren’t compelling, though, Skybleeder is my protagonist Gratai Lin’s spear. It ultimately doesn’t matter whether a given reader cares about its every detail, because Gratai cares about it. You might think this sounds a little unrelatable for some readers, and you’re right! Gratai isn’t supposed to be perfectly relatable. She’s a well-meaning but deeply flawed person with a latent psychopathic streak longer than the circumference of her homeworld. In order to cater to the waving banners reading “let the reader imagine for themselves!”, I’d have to sell out part of my main character’s actual character.
It took me 50 hours to create that render. It took me about half an hour in total to write and refine a few short paragraphs of description laying out the spear’s best features and most important characteristics. Now, a few paragraphs are still a bit longer than I like to go for unbroken description–most of the time, anyway–so of course I cropped all these loving details down to a single sentence because it’s fine if nobody feels how much Gratai cares about this spear.
It’s totally fine if Skybleeder, the relic spear of House Lin, the legendary indestructible all-cleaving instrument of condensed oblivion which slew Gaunt Ones with a single mortal blow, has a description nearly identical to every other one-sentence throwaway blurb for all the other relic weapons in fantasy. The readers can just imagine its vicious blade and glorious patterns and painstaking color balance for themselves.
Of course I’m lying! I figured out a way to work the lingering description into the early events of that chapter. Gratai has a party with her family which she is hosting. She does not want to be there. So she puts things off by ritualistic appreciation of this masterwork weapon. One of her sisters, Sharilu, persistently interrupts the description by knocking on Gratai’s door. If you like fancy weaponry, you will sympathize with Gratai. If you prefer character interactions and plot advancement, you will sympathize with Sharilu.
I developed all this because I felt I had something unique to offer readers, something which they just don’t have the time to develop via their own imagination. Those paragraphs end up exploring two characters and their relationship, world history, and the weapon itself while cementing the scene’s tone. It’s my job as the writer to figure out this balancing act for myself.
I can’t help but notice that many of the writers most reliant on “reader imagination” are the ones with the largest support staff of artists. I’ll go blunt for a moment: writers who hand an artist a single sentence of description and make them create the actual design are fucking garbage. That’s not collaboration, that’s outsourcing.
They’re also also doing themselves a disservice because they’ve abandoned any attempt to understand color palette, detailing, sense of motion, and a dozen other variables inherent in good art. This means they develop weaker ideas of how to translate these elements into prose, so they surrender mastery in using them to create mood and tone or to express characters by–gasp!–showing, not telling.
Good art is an amazing supplement to good prose, but your readers process it differently. Remember, the language center and visual cortex are separate brain areas. Art can guide imagination, but if your prose provides too little framework for readers to fit the art into then you’re not keeping those separate parts of the brain in sync. The artwork, rather than helping them see your words in a new way, will only condition them more and more to rely on the art’s interpretations over their own.
Let’s return fully to this post’s topic. The beauty of words is that they’re open to interpretation. The problem with words is that they’re open to interpretation. More words can limit this, but not completely remove it. Or to put that more clearly: you will never be able to include so many words that you take away your reader’s ability to imagine. This is a pointless way of thinking.
If you have too much description, the passage will read sluggishly. If your description doesn’t include strong details, it will provoke no emotional reaction or engagement. The same goes for using sound and color, character emotion, and everything else. These concerns will stymie your readers’ imagination, absolutely, but trying to gauge whether you’ve “left enough room” is an exercise in madness. Every person has a different threshold. The writing achieves its desired effect or does not; nothing else matters.
One final time: the reason “let the reader imagine for themselves” is pointless is because it has nothing to do with the relationship between writing’s mechanics and their effects on the audience. If your readers care whether you’re allowing them to imagine “enough” for themselves, whatever that phrase ultimately means, then you have already failed. I’ve used artwork as the example because visuals are, in my opinion, the area where this advice causes the most damage.
Yes, I know writing isn’t a visual medium–neither is it truly a medium of sound, scent, touch, or even emotion. All words are abstract flails for concepts they fail miserably to encompass if you demand a 1-1 match. Yet, you never use this as an excuse to avoid properly fleshed-out characters. Do you really think a bunch of letters on a page are the same thing as the baffling fusillade of emotions, closeted trauma, history and motivations that comprise a human being? Of course you don’t! Your words can’t actually be people.
And yet, they are.
Stephen King advises writers not to mention the exact number of lights on a building. I agree; this would be silly. He also says the road to hell is paved with adverbs. I say adverbs constitute a break in a sentence’s rhythm and whether that works in its favor or not depends on the specificity’s strength and the context. “Hatefully rending” is an adverbial phrase; I would argue it works better than just “rending” or even “hateful rending” because the physical motion of rending an object involves snags and stutters and halts. The “ly” makes a stumbling block for the mouth–or language center, as the case may be–just as tensed-up tendons and bone make snags for fang and claw.
Whichever of us you agree with–I suspect you agree with Mr. King, I’m not that full of myself–you’ll note these are mechanical arguments, not abstract appeals to some noble icon. Extra detail is good when it adds to a story’s effect, and bad when it does not. When should you leave things to the reader’s imagination? Whenever you end up doing so as a byproduct of writing the best story you can. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it ’til I’m dead: you cannot write well by putting effect before cause.
If I’ve proved one thing across this straggling mangle of an article, I hope it’s that reader imagination is an effect. You, my friends, are the cause.
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