Using your Reader’s Imagination

There are many different skills a writer learns during his or her apprenticeship, but one that is rarely discussed is the skill of using the reader’s imagination. The best books around are those that make their readers work – and readers love these books, although they don’t consciously realise what it is about the book that makes it so attractive.

What do I mean?

Well, there’s the obvious way in which a reader tries to work out a mystery in a plot – who murdered the butler out of a scullery full of suspects, for instance. But there is a far more subtle way good authors manage to make use of their readers’ imagination.

All of us have imaginations (no matter how many people claim they don’t). We’re human, we think, we imagine. More particularly, our imaginations embellish the bare facts set before us.

If I say to you, “The woman walked into the kitchen”, what do you see in your mind’s eye? Just a woman walking into a kitchen? No, your imagination takes that simple statement and embellishes it. You ‘see’ a kitchen – that is, knowing what a kitchen usually contains you place within this kitchen the tile floor, the sink, the stove, the fridge etc. You probably also give the woman an appearance – whatever appearance you associate with women in kitchens (a middle-aged woman wearing an apron? Whatever …). You are literally incapable of not embellishing that statement.

Thus when someone reads, their imagination is constantly at work, embellishing every phrase they read. A good author (in the same way as a good film maker) uses this to their advantage. A bad writer is one who constantly describes, or who constantly tells the reader what they should see in that kitchen. For example:

  • The middle-aged woman, of a dumpy build, her greying, oily brown hair in curlers, a dirty and ragged apron wrapped about her waist, sensible but thin-soled shoes on her feet and a resigned expression on her lined and tired face, walked into the kitchen which had a stove in the northern corner, a fridge in the southern corner, a white and brown-tiled floor, a strange dove mobile hanging from the central flourescent light which flickered on and off, on and off, on and off, paint peeling from the walls, a table covered with a faded green and cream checked tablecloth and cracked crockery set out with stained stainless steel cutlery to its side.

That’s too much! Far better to say, “The dowdy woman walked into her drab kitchen”, and the reader’s imagination will supply the rest! You know the paragraph above is bad – it is boring to read, but it also insults you by giving you too much information. Give your reader prompts, but don’t explain it to them as if they were five-year-old children (who, if truth be told, don’t need to have things spelt out for them either!). The boring description is not only insulting, it slows down the pace of the plot, and as any good editor will tell you, “Pace! Pace! Pace!”

So the good author gives their reader prompts, or hints, but forces their readers to work things out for themselves. The reader rarely realises this is going on, but they really enjoy the book, because they are so involved in it.

I’ll give you two of the best examples I’ve ever found in fantasy or science-fiction books.

  1. Simon Brown in Privateer. Simon’s aliens are reptilian in appearance – but he doesn’t actually tell the reader this until fairly late in the book, and by this time the reader has worked it out for themselves from the subtle hints Simon places throughout the text (“his feet clicked across the floor”; human feet rarely ‘click’, so there’s something different about these feet … perhaps they have long nails, or claws …).
  2. Robin Hobe in the first book of Assassin’s Apprentice. Robin never told you the exact nature of the lead character’s magical ability, you had to work it out for yourself. It was brilliantly done.

One more thing that flows on from this, and this is something that I learned from my first editor, Louise Thurtell, is that you rarely have to use ten thousand adjectives to describe dialogue: the dialogue itself should explain how it is being said, and how characters react to it, rather than the use of patronising adjectival tags. Characters say, they do not shout, expostulate, grumble, laugh, murmur and so forth. If the dialogue doesn’t make plain what a character is feeling, or how a character reacts, or even the manner of their speech, then the dialogue is very, very poor.

Your readers have active, intelligent imaginations. Make them use them. They will literally love you for it. Sometimes a reader comes up to me and tells me that reading my books is like watching a movie, and a recent review said that “the Douglass brand of fantasy is intensely cinematic”. Why? Because I consciously use prompts that propel the reader’s imagination to create their own vast landscapes: I don’t describe in detail, I don’t have to, because I make use of my reader’s imagination.

This explains the saying that there is a different book for every reader that takes it up. Whatever I write, as whatever every other writer writes, takes on a different meaning for every different person who picks up the book. There is not one land of Tencendor – there are half a million different lands of Tencendor.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

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