When someone asks for “description,” do you answer with “leave nothing to the imagination?”
Well, as you may know, this isn’t too classy, and although some folks may enjoy that, most probably don’t. I personally fall back on description when I am at a loss of words, because I know that description is my strongest asset as a writer, and I’m most comfortable doing it. The problem remains: sometimes, to improve, I need to leave something to the imagination.
This might sound contrary to you. Or maybe like an author not doing his job. But I heartily believe that leaving something to the imagination is essential to any engaging story.
Think about these two scenarios:
- You are shown a building.
- You are shown the blueprint for a building and given the tools to construct it yourself.
Which is more interesting?
My father calls this literary technique “co-authorship.” If a reader begins to provide details, they are investing themselves in the story, piece by piece. They build characters and settings and even emotion based on the breadcrumbs an author leaves. Of course, you must give them the scaffolding, but they are the bricklayers. In the end, characters are more personable, settings are more vivid, and emotions are more visceral if the reader has had room for input.
Leaving this margin–the reader margin, per se–can be difficult to do, especially in secondary world fiction, where authors believe it is their solemn duty to present as real and fully-fleshed a world as they can by relying purely on what I’ve heard called “description-porn.” So, I’ll say it again: Co-authorship is hard to pull off because it lives in the absence of words, like a bar of silence in a symphony.
Great fiction accomplishes this. You may know the feeling of reading a book and then seeing the film version, and thinking: “well, that’s not how I pictured ____ at all!” (I will never remember what Ned Stark looked like; all I see now is Sean Bean, dammit!)
Description, then, should be treated like valuable currency, not to be spent all at once. Find hedges of words and prune them vigorously, until only the most nuanced, interesting bits remain. Or, write a new scene in a new setting to you and limit yourself to five sentences of description.
Good luck, and happy writing!
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Don’t steal my words. They’re mine. Zachary Barnes 2016©