And yet I rarely if ever hear it used in a literal context. The imagination being robbed of it’s natural job. The imagination is a powerful tool, and quite possibly the most crucial thing a writer needs (alongside cold hard work ethic and hard graft of the craft). And yet, while writers will all sit and nod at each other when it comes to exercising our own imagination, we all too often take for granted the other important imagination at play when it comes to the story: that of our reader.
Too many times I have read a story that was puttering along quite nicely, setting the scene with a reasonable amount of action and place. And then in walks an important character for the first time. Suddenly, the narrative hits a big fat pause button and the whole story freezes over as the writer zooms in on this new character to describe him or her in microscopic detail. The same is true of describing places as well.
There are multiple problems to this, some of which we have already covered here at On Writing and or cover in greater detail in future posts. However, for me the biggest problem is actually the most offensive one: that the writer just doesn’t trust their reader.
Now, I’m not accusing writers who do this of actively patronizing their readers. Some definitely do; treating their reader like some kind of passive mass that need to be spoon-fed everything otherwise the reader will just imagine a big blank nothing where the writer doesn’t give a complete report on the bodyguard’s swarthy features or the beauty of a red sunset. Other writers are just a little bit over-enthusiastic: they have this brilliant image of what their hero looks like or just how genius the intricate brushstrokes of a painting are. But, malicious or not, the end result is the same: the reader has to plough through a quagmire of descriptive prose, as the writer desperately tries to get the reader to match their own wonderful vision. The result from the reader is a very claustrophobic narrative that loses all sense of pacing when it hits that pause button. Imagine if movies did this, when every time a new character walked on screen they stopped, pulled up a written biography and zoomed in to show you that rune-shaped scar and the thick nose-hair.
Look, the simple matter of the fact is that when the reader sat down with your story, there was an unspoken agreement. You, as the writer, will take that reader on a journey. What that journey will be is in your hands, but the reader’s end of the bargain is to exercise their own imagination to fill in the gaps.
Because that’s what they are. Gaps. The things that you might be scrambling to inform the reader on might not be important information. So what if your character has a crooked nose that’s in the shape of the Matterhorn? So what if the kitchen has kitschy décor that was in style back in the 80s, looked dated for a while but is now coming back into vogue so the estate agent could upsell a designer kitchen at no extra cost? If these facts are just window dressing, then leave it to the reader. At most, you might want to give them a gentle nudge in the right direction. Say your character has the thickset look of a retired boxer, or it’s simply a kitschy kitchen (which is bonus points for fun wordplay). Trust in your reader to fill in the rest.
Let’s look an example: Hogwarts Castle from the Harry Potter series is one of the most famous fictional settings of our time. It’s description upon it’s first dramatic reveal?
“Perched atop a high mountain on the other side, its windows sparkling in the starry sky, was a vast castle with many turrets and towers.”
That’s it. A single sentence, barely two lines on a page. Now, I don’t know about you but for the rest of the book I had a very strong image of what Hogwarts looked like, and this was all I needed. I’m certain every other reader out there felt the same. Did myself and every other reader imagine it differently from the movie version, or what J.K Rowling herself had pictured? Definitely, but it didn’t matter, because the core facts that mattered were there, and Rowling trusted her readers, and it made the book even better because of that.
Your reader may have their own ideal vision of what things look like as well: if there is no consequence to your narrative, then let your reader’s imagination fill in the gaps for you. It’s a win-win: They will have a much better time enjoying the elbow room in the story, and you will feel unshackled in having to flesh out every physical feature.