Readers are smart people. They are not to be belittled, but they are to be challenged. However, the way readers are included in the story these days is not the way they should be employed. Too many times, the advice comes down the line, “Oh, just leave that to your readers’ imagination,” and while readers do possess an incredible imagination, this piece of advice is merely a cheap excuse for an author to write lethargically. What do I mean? Let me show you:
Hannah and Jacob raced into the house and slammed the door shut behind them.
“You sure we’re safe here?” Jacob asked, and Hannah nodded.
“Yeah—as safe as we’ll be anywhere else in the world at this time.”
So take that snippet of a scene. It’s easy and extremely plain. You could say, “I’ll let my readers fill in the blanks of what’s happening in the scene because, after all, they are intelligent people.” However, this use of the readers’ intelligence is insulting. It’s like giving us baby food when we want steak. Now, let me show you another version of that scene:
Hannah and Jacob raced into the house and slammed the door shut behind them. With heart still pounding, Jacob slid down the door to the floor and clasped his hands together to keep them from trembling. He shot Hannah a look and saw her pacing around the room, and he swallowed hard. “You sure we’re safe here?”
She hugged her arms close to her and paced back and forth as she bobbed her head. “Yeah—as safe as we’ll be anywhere else in the world at this time.” She didn’t know if Jacob got her real meaning, but she wasn’t about to spell it out for him.
In this version of the scene, we see more how the characters respond to their situation. Yes, the actual setting isn’t painted in fine detail—we just know they’re in a house at the front door. While even more description could be added to bring the setting to life, what is focused on is the characters’ reaction. By this, we can see they’re terrified, but at the same time Hannah knows something Jacob doesn’t know, and she doesn’t care to tell him.
By bringing the readers into this bit of mystery, they feel included in the story. They don’t know all the details, but they know something is off. They’ll be looking for hints and trying to solve the mystery before it’s revealed at the end. If they get it and are proven right, they’ll be excited. Of course, you, as the author, may think, “But I don’t want anyone to solve the mystery beforehand.” This is something you’ll just have to accept, but keep in mind that your readers might not figure it out. It’s a gamble, but it’s worth it if you want your readers to really engage with the story.
Also, be careful. You can make it complicated and try to trick your readers, but keep in mind that not all readers are trying to solve the puzzle. They’re just along for the ride. If you make it too complex, you may lose them.
So, you must strike the perfect balance between making something enjoyable for those just reading to have fun as well as creating something challenging for those readers who like to go deeper—without losing either of them. Too often stories are written for pure entertainment, and we’ve forgotten that some people are entertained by challenging their minds. A lot of times we write merely to provide a simple escape for readers without giving them anything to strive for. Sure, everyone can (and likely will) enjoy this…but for a time. Without something to aim for, without a purpose, we all grow listless whereas stories should rejuvenate us because 1) they’ve provided an exciting escape for us, but also 2) we’ve been mentally stimulated. It’s like coming back from a vacation.
As writers, we should never settle for less or for the easy way out but rather endeavor for more mastery of our craft and be determined to constantly challenge your readers. If this trick worked in one story, you might get away with using it again in another story, but then you need to change up your game. Keep the readers guessing. They think the story is going this specific way, so lead them on in that direction, but then whip them around and show them it’s nothing they expected. The best they can do is hang on for the ride because it’s going to be a wild roller coaster.
So next time someone says, “Just leave it to your readers’ imagination,” stop. It’s a red flag. Look at what is before you and determine if you should keep things the way they are in the story (especially if it’s vague). Yes, there are some things you can allow your readers to imagine (such as all the specific food and drinks on a banquet table and every single décor element in the room). Sometimes the vagueness can work to your advantage, but when you come to a part in your story and realize the scene is unclear, ask yourself, “Am I being vague being it’s absolutely necessary for the scene, or is it because I don’t want to take the time to imagine more detail and write it?” Be honest with yourself.
I am not saying you must write every single detail in a scene! In the example I gave above with Jacob and Hannah in the house, I did not describe the house at all—one-story house, two-story house, or if it’s old or new, abandoned or occupied. Those are details I would slip into the story bit-by-bit as the scene progressed because the last thing you want to do is have paragraphs and paragraphs describing every little thing in the house. That will undoubtedly bore your readers, and you don’t want that. It’s a tricky balance to maintain but one for which you should strive.
We should never stop learning. The moment we think, “This is my writing style, and this is how I write,” that is the moment the quality of our writing plummets. There is always something to learn, always something to experiment with, always something to try, and it is your duty, as an author and creator of stories, to seek to learn more, so—through your writing—you can teach more.
Your readers are incredibly intelligent people, but don’t give them crumbs with which you expect them to build your world in the story. That’s not their responsibility—that’s yours.