Every writer worth her salt has heard this phrase. Often times we, as artists of the written word, prolong what does not need prolonging; we spell out for a reader (sometimes in painful detail) what we could accomplish with barely a hint. While your description of the landscape may be poetic or your dialogue clever and crisp, an equally clever editor will probably tell you: “Delete it.”
Today I want to assure you that you can trust the reader to imagine things for himself. It sounds scary, I know. I’ve been there. I’ve imagined interactions and situations so complex I feel I must tell my reader everything.
But often times a reader’s imagination can do more for you and your story than the writing can.
Readers have vivid mind’s eyes. For example: “A river cuts through the valley.” I don’t tell you what kind of river, or what landscape surrounds the valley (it could be mountains or hills or flying buffalo), or how fast the river is running, but I don’t need to. You get the verb cuts, and immediately you can imagine it. It’s probably a small river, thin like a knife; whether it runs fast or slow doesn’t matter much to us.
To place my point in real life, I’m going to use an example from my short story The Mirror. My boyfriend Ryan is probably the best editor a girl could ask for, because he’s always helping me locate and destroy my unnecessary but darling lines, paragraphs, and sometimes even whole sections.
After Calean (pronounced kay-lee-ehn) is accosted by three mercenaries on the road to the Capitol (see part II), I had originally written the following as the scene finale:
“You should go,” says Calean, dropping his head so his hair falls in a curtain over his face. One of the mercenaries dismounts and walks towards him.
“What did you say?” growls the soldier, stooping lower.
“You. Should. Go.”
A guffaw erupts from his mouth. “Y’hear that, Mr. Joss?” says the mercenary, licking his lips. “He told us we should leave.”
The other two men laugh along with him. The mercenary steps closer.
“C’mon, boy,” he says. “I don’t want this to get messy. Just hold out your hands so I can tie you up, and we’ll carry you on into the Capitol. You even get a free ride out of it.”
“Free ride,” adds the other man cheerfully.
“My name is Calean,” says the boy.
Two women loaded down with fine linens and home-spun silk stop a half-mile down the road, just beyond the curve of a hill. Men are shouting up ahead. A cloud of dust rises into the air.
Before long, a horse whinnies, and there come a thunder of hoofbeats. A horse sails past the two merchantwomen, its side streaked with blood.
On the other side of the hill, one mercenary is dead. His throat has been neatly punctured with a dagger no larger than a butterfly’s wing.
I had intended to go on, describing to my reader in sordid detail how the possessed Calean slashes and murders the three mercenaries, each killing more quick and brutal than the one before it. The merchantwomen were my observers, showing the reader why the three horses were lost, and spelling out the young, blind boy’s sudden and destructive attack.
“Nope,” said Ryan, shaking his head when he read it. “Why are you telling me all this? Why not just jump to the aftermath and let your readers imagine it for themselves?”
He touches on a very important point here, which is this: Your reader’s imagination will always be more compelling and realistic than something they read. Imagining something on your own (as opposed to reading it) hits you harder, the way a nightmare feels real until you wake up.
It’s better to imply something than to say it out loud. Readers are great at filling in the gaps.
I took Ryan’s advice and wrote the following as the beginning to part III:
It’s afternoon when the world steps back into focus. Coming back from the dark inside to reality feels a lot like swimming, after you’ve held your breath too long and your head bursts free from the water, and you suck in mouthful after mouthful of air.
Cicadas hum in the branches of a nearby grove of honeypole trees. They are neither bothered by the sound of a boy’s feet passing through the tall grass nor the tangy smell of blood.
Even without his sight, Calean knows the blade of his dagger—barely larger than a butterfly’s wing—is sticky with lifeblood. Tucked in his belt is a sword. When he draws it, he hears the familiar chink of Mr. Joss’s scabbard.
That’s not the only thing I took from that blue-blooded bovine, hums the voice. It slurs, like a man after two heavy drinks.
There was so much imagery here that I thought was important to the story: The tiny dagger that killed three grown men; Calean emerging from the haze after being possessed by the monster inside him; showing off his new trophy—Mr. Joss’s fine sword.
After I read this aloud, Ryan scratched his chin. “Still not right,” he said. “What if you don’t tell the reader anything? What if you just moved on with the story like nothing happened? We readers are smart. We can figure it out.”
Like I said: you can trust your reader. You trusted your reader to pick up your story and start reading it, so why bail now? The less that is said from the outset, the more surprising the following sequences become.
Now, as a cautionary measure, you never want to confuse your reader. Simply withhold what he doesn’t need. Cut the fluff and the detail, and let your reader’s imagination do the work for you.
To recap, here is how part III ended up:
Cicadas hum in the branches of a nearby grove of honeypole trees. The Capitol looms overhead, the domed white roofs of the castle at the center of the city glimmering silver in the afternoon sun.
A guard steps out of his post when a boy approaches the gate to the city. The boy wears a sharp vest, dark boots a size too big, a fine steel sword and a purse. His hair turns gold in the light and his white-blue eyes are vacant as the underside of a cloud.
“I’m assuming you have a license for that sword,” says the guard, raising one eyebrow.
The boy nods, and hands him an engraved bronze token from his vest.
“Joss?” asks the guard, peering at the writing.
“Calean Joss,” replies the boy.
The guard glances over the token once more before handing it back.
“The fee is fifteen cod.”
Calean reaches into the purse and fishes out three gray coins. He drops the three coins and another smaller one into the guard’s outstretched palm.
“Sure, Mr. Joss,” says the guard. He checks the coins as he returns to his post, and dumps them in the till. “Open up.”
The outcome of the attack is implied. Calean now has Joss’s sword, weapon license, and some money we are fairly certain he didn’t have before.