Monday, 2 July 2012

When to let the reader do the work...

I believe in fiction the particular is more interesting than the general. His London flat? His Mayfair flat or his Willesden flat will tell the reader more for the same number of words. So Nick Cavanagh in Replica drives an Audi TT CoupĂ© 1.8, while in Remix Jeff Pike smokes Marlboros, and a celebration takes place at the Dorchester. To my amusement, one reviewer remarked on this, and speculated that I was making up the meagre income from writing with product placement fees.

But there are exceptions to this rule. Jane Austen seldom describes the physical features of her characters. But she is such a good writer that I am sure all her readers have a clear image of them in their minds. I am certain for instance that in Emma, Emma is a brunette and Harriet a blonde, though we are never told.  All we know about Elizabeth Bennett's appearance is that she is not bad-looking and has fine eyes - and this we are told by Mr Darcy. I think it wise to resist the impulse to convey every detail the author sees so plainly in his imagination to the novel's readers. Keep description brief and vivid. Leave a little room between the lines for their imagination to work, and the book will be partly theirs and stay with them forever.

There is a passage in Replica where Nick opens the front door on to a snowy street clad only in his boxers. I asked my daughter, who is nearer the character's age group than I, what his boxers should look like. (After online research, I favoured black Calvin Kleins.) She said, don't describe them, then every woman reading it will imagine him wearing her favourite type of boxers. She was right.


  1. I guess you have to be specific when it matters to the plot that the reader gets the right impression and you can be vague when you want the reader to engage their own imagination. It's hard to remember to not always be a control freak though!

  2. Oracle - how can you think that??? Is it because of the film?

    K, I sometimes think writing fiction is just one long series of decisions, and if the author gets any of them wrong, it wrecks the whole book.

  3. I think if the author gets emough decisions right, the reader forgives the odd "wrong" one. Every reader probably has slightly different ideas about how specific they like their fiction anyway.

    And Emma has dark hair. Obviously. ;)

  4. That's comforting, FH. It's true readers forgive a lot if the story grips them.

  5. I am now thinking of my favourite type of boxers - or more importantly - who'se wearing them! LOL!!

    Take care

  6. I can't say but my original copy may possibly have had a painting of a blonde lady on the front. Or it could have been because Elizabeth Bennett is so obviously a brunette that Emma had to be blonde to balance it out.

  7. Oracle, one thing I'm sure we'd agree about is that Fanny Price had mousy hair.

    Kitty - :o)

  8. Emma is young, beautiful, witty, intelligent, mischievous and privileged. Must be blonde!

    Knowing what to leave unsaid is the hallmark of a great novelist IMHO

  9. No one has yet insisted Emma was a redhead. Is this significant?

    There is more I could say, but I'm leaving it unsaid...

  10. A worthwhile reminder, Lexi.

    The problem occurs for me when the writer gives a physical description of a character some way into the story. By that time I have already formed my opinion, usually vague and misty, but I'm comfortable with it, unless I discover that I've got it all wrong. It then takes my attention away from the plot.

  11. That's just happened to me. Right at the end of the novel I just read the irresistible hero is described twice as having a shaven head. This immediately made him resistible, to me at any rate.

    I went back to the start to check, and he's described as having a buzz cut, which is short but definitely not hairless as in 'shaven'. Okay, so maybe the guy shaved his head during the course of the book, but I didn't like it.

  12. Lexi, please thank your daughter for her invaluable advice. Generally speaking I would agree with you, that a little detail is a) more interesting, and b) helps verisimilitude. (Sorry - love that word!)

    But now I can see the wisdom of leaving certain details vague, in order to allow the reader to see whatever they want to see. Especially when you want the reader to find someone or something appealing. Hope you're paying your daughter a fortune for such first-class editorial tips.

  13. David, I'll pass on your message :o)

    The daughter is my first beta reader, who reads my novels as I write them and if I am lucky makes suggestions. She's made me do two rewrites so far on the WIP - she visits, the book gets shorter. But she is very often right.

  14. I think it may have been Ursula Le Guin who advised having a clear picture yourself of what a character looks like, but not deliberately giving details, just letting them emerge (or not) naturally. That's more or less the path I take.

    Yes, it's interesting how little physical detail of her characters Austen gives us, and yet we have such clear (and varied) images of them. I think Emma's hazel eyes are a rare example of colouring being stated.

    I completely agree that Harriet's blonde. :)

  15. When I was little and began to read a lot, I always skipped descriptions. I wanted to get on with the story. Aged twelve, I read Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea, and her brief descriptions conjured such vivid images in my head, she got me reading them again in other authors' books.

    But I still don't like it when a writer sits you down and gives a list of the character's appearance and clothing.