The Second Rule of Storytelling

December 13, 2008 at 12:51 pm (My Thoughts, Writing Tips) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Here’s another of my thoughts:

  • Credit your reader with intelligence.
  • Allow their imagination to fill in any blanks.

Sometimes, writers have a tendency to explain everything in great detail.  They want to get ideas out of their head, and they also don’t want people to misinterpret those ideas.  I think that doing this is a mistake.

As readers, we don’t need to know everything about everything as soon as it is mentioned.  In fact, without any mystery, that quickly becomes boring.  Mystery keeps readers interested – we want to keep reading to find out if our imagination is correct.  If we already know the answer, why bother continuing to read?

Further… no matter how brilliant your ideas may be, they simply cannot compare to the imagination of an avid reader!  No matter how skillfully you write down those ideas, you simply cannot compare to the images in a dreaming head.  Imagination can produce everything you could possibly write… and much, much more.

Of course, you do want the story to go wherever you want it to go.  After all, it’s your story.  I’m not suggesting that you leave everything to the reader… just leave choice parts that allow you to stay in control.  Float your ideas around the story – allowing the reader to use their imagination at the same time.  This will result in a better reading experience.

You can see this tactic working all the time in successful stories:

  • In Harry Potter, Rowling had us all wondering whether Snape was good or bad, and also what had previously happened between him and Dumbledore.
  • In Star Wars, Lucas did not explain how Darth Vader came to be until the very last of his six movies.
  • In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien never told us where Sauron came from and how he became so evil (at least, not to my knowledge).

And so on.

Doing this in your own story is simple.  You obviously need to set the scene; that might mean describing the viewpoint character’s surroundings, their thoughts and feelings – anything along those lines is fine.  But don’t succumb to the temptation to fully explain past events, technology, or concepts.  Just mention them in your story a few times and leave it at that for a while.

This tactic is best used in casual conversation, because nobody in real life would explain things in detail during such a chat – they would assume that the other person already knew about it.  Or you could try not explaining how somebody has a particular skill.  Instead, just show them using that skill and let the reader wonder.  Actions speak louder than words!  Perhaps you have your own idea how to accomplish this in your writing, and many things could work, so go ahead and try.

As an extra benefit, this also allows you to tell further stories, explaining a back story in greater detail (either confirming the reader’s imagined story, or surprising them with something different).

By keeping people guessing about things that are not vital to the story being told, you allow their imagination to fill in those blanks – adding depth and intrigue to your tale.

Credit your reader with intelligence, and that intelligence will improve their reading experience.

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