Leave Space for the Reader to Inhabit

image          A plot—no matter what the genre—should be like a jigsaw puzzle: complex and satisfying to piece together. Stop turning it into puzzle blocks.

          “Careful! The square block goes there!”

          “I know. Put down the megaphone.”

          This kind of hand-holding is apparently the mark of a novice writer.  Limited to a scene, it often takes the form of telling rather than showing.

          Bad: She could see in his penetratingly awesome eyes that he loved her.

          Worse: It was clear that he really loved her. “Kiss me, baby,” he said, throwing his arms wide.

          Please, DO NOT tell how your character is feeling. Show it. Be subtle—especially when tackling something as multi-faceted and unique-to-character as love. Oh, and as a rule, try not to use the word “love” when writing about it.

          On the scale of an entire novel, the concept of “leaving space” applies to your characters’ development. This means that you are (or should be) revealing backstory in pieces—carefully calculated bits that give readers the exact amount of information they need in order to understand what they are witnessing. No more. No less.

          This also means that you are (or should be) giving us hints to your characters’ endpoints—exactly what will they be like by the end of the book? How will they change (or not change)?  Watching this evolution should be exciting for the reader, and surprises are welcome. Some genres dictate a specific endpoint for characters, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shake it up on the way there or challenge the troupes of your genre.

          Remember, it is your job to entertain. If you are standing next to me and shouting in my face that your character, Bob, is feeling lonely, desperate, and is about to do something very, very bad…I’m sorry. I’m just not as interested as if I just saw a figure with a flash of silver in her hand disappear into the darkness. I want to follow that character. In her story, there is space for me to breathe. And a reason to follow.

          Do you struggle to leave space for the reader to inhabit?

          Also, have you read any books that strike that perfect balance, pulling us along with the promise of learning more?

          Michelle Joyce Bond


10 thoughts on “Leave Space for the Reader to Inhabit

  1. The showing not telling thing comes with practice as does learning when a bit of telling is needed (as it sometimes is to move things along). I struggle at times separating the two, as I suspect most writers do. But if we can at least recognize what’s telling and what’s showing, then we’re halfway there.

  2. I remember when I first wrote as a young teenager, I felt compelled to control reader interpretation and as a result, I wielded an absolutely stupid amount description so to not let the reader “get it wrong”. I wonder if the problem of “telling” comes back to a novice writer’s desire to control reader interpretation of character feelings.

    I think it all comes back to relevance, and weeding out the unnecessary. From extraneous chapters to excess paragraphs to just cutting an adjective here and there, “telling”, in my experience, has a way of filling word counts without adding substance.

    Words layered with multiple purposes and multiple meanings invoke the most feeling; even if they’re not many.

    1. I totally agree on all points–and thank you for writing such a thoughtful response! That’s an excellent point by the way about allowing the reader to develop their own opinion and understanding of characters rather than force it. I also agree that the best writing is multifaceted. 🙂

  3. My favorite author, Frank Peretti, does this very well. I feel like I can never put down one of his books. I’m not bad at it myself, but my mom doesn’t get it at all. Half the time, when she was helping me edit, she was telling me to push events forward. It’s a hard balance to maintain well.

  4. Mathair and I do find it hard to not spoon-feed the readers. As authors we know how the story is going to unfold and is so excited to share this with the readers that we tend to lay things on thickly or give things away when they should be unfolded slowly. We try to remember that when we write, but something inevitably escapes. LOL Great points though, Michelle and great post.

    1. I agree–it’s very hard to hold back. I was recently rereading one of my favorite writing books, Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us, and you reminded me of one of Morrell’s points: hold back until the very last moment with backstory. 🙂

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