Our earliest attempts to fill a fresh, daunting expanse of novel-length white can be a bit like choosing crayons. We want colors that will show what our characters look like, how they feel, what they think about this or that. We want to fill in all the details about where they live and work. But this first rush to deliver a story world, if left in place, can inadvertently create a problem on the receiving end. Those colorful blocks of overwritten description, which should be intended to invite the reader into your story, can end up creating a wall that keeps her out.
To fix this in subsequent drafts, think “active sketching” instead of “ham-fisted coloring.” Harness the most crucial details to tell your story and put them to work—and leave some white on the page so the reader can fill in the rest.
There are many ways to do this. Consider the way a simple comparison engages the reader’s associative powers, as in this passage from Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer. A lone naturalist studying coyotes on a mountain crosses paths with an armed man on one of her daily rounds. He sees her first—he’s caught her sniffing a stump for an animal’s scent. He speaks:
“Good Lord,” she said, able to breathe out finally. “I didn’t ask your name.”
“You need to know it, though.”
Cocky, she thought. Or cocked, rather. Like a rifle, ready to go off.
We’ll get more of a description later. Here, Kingsolver’s short, evocative passage asks the reader to contribute her considerable life experience to make quick sense of the situation. Just like the character had to. But there’s more going on here than the metaphor. The chop of the man’s two-word sentence underscores the woman’s shock; that those words name him bring this stranger fully into the story. She is going to have to deal with Eddie Bondo.
Guide the reader toward understanding
Don’t worry that you’re asking the reader to do your job for you—you’re still in charge of your story world. But you can choose to be a guide rather than a dictator. To beg the reader’s participation, you need only leave some gaps in your wall of words so the reader can fully immerse in your story.
This sensibility can be incorporated into all kinds of writing. Even in genres like science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, where you are building worlds in which the reader has never lived, you can still ask your reader to tap common human experience for meaning.
To illustrate today’s mad skill I turn again to Prodigal Summer. Rather than offer up an early, static look at where the naturalist lives on this mountain—as she may well have, on her first draft—Kingsolver holds off describing her cabin until p. 27, when its details can be used to further the story.
This first look at the character’s personal space accomplishes so much. . It also contains so much of the story’s DNA that it could almost have been its opening. Let’s see if you can tell what’s going on.
His presence filled her tiny cabin so, she felt distracted trying to cook breakfast. Slamming cupboards, looking for things in the wrong places, she wasn’t used to company here. She had only a single ladderback chair, plus the old bedraggled armchair out on the porch with holes in its arms from which phoebes pulled white shreds of stuffing to line their nests. That was all. She pulled the ladderback chair away from the table, set its tall back against the logs of the opposite wall, and asked him to sit, just to get a little space around her as she stood at the propane stove scrambling powdered eggs and boiling water for the grits. Off to his right stood her iron-framed cot with its wildly disheveled mattress, the night table piled with her books and field journals, and the kerosene lantern they’d nearly knocked over last night in some mad haste to burn themselves down.
Were you able to intuit what went on there?
Mm-hmm. I thought so.
Read the paragraph again and appreciate how Kingsolver describes, characterizes, evokes emotion, and furthers plot, all through the protagonist’s brief interaction with setting. She guides us straight toward experiencing the scene then stands out of our way.
That’s easier said than done. While holding the entirety of the story in your head, it’s hard to know if you’ve woven too tightly or created a sieve. This is a great use for beta readers. Ask them to tell you where they feel unsure of your meaning or where you’ve made them feel smart. You always want your reader to feel smart.
It’s worth the extra attention you’ll pay to this in your final drafts. Strive to gain the active participation of your reader and you will create the reading adventure she sought when opening the cover of your book.
Have you ever thought about creating an interactive experience with your reader? What do you admire most about Kingsolver’s paragraph? What other techniques do you use as a writer, or have you enjoyed as a reader?
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