Your word choice may be killing your story in ways you haven’t realized. We’re always told to provide specific, concrete descriptions to guide the reader along in the fictive dream.
But sometimes we overdo it. Read on for some examples of what I’m talking about.
The Case of Jim and Bob
When Bob reached the end, he landed in front of Jim, who grabbed his arm and dragged him through the archway.
When Bob reached the end, he landed in front of Jim, who pulled him through the archway.
One of the ways in which we create a “fictive dream” for the reader is to offer just enough concrete and specific details to allow their mind to fill in the blanks. This is important, because the fictive dream is theirs, not ours.
In the edited version, at the end, I offer just enough detail to get the point across: Jim pulled Bob through the archway. When the reader reads this sentence, his or her mind will run to that special place where they store imagery of people pulling other people through archways. They’ve seen that action a hundred times in a hundred different configurations. They’ll select one (subconsciously) according to their current mood and other contextual clues from the surrounding prose, and the spark of the fictive dream is born. That scene becomes their scene. They made it their own. They’re part of the story now, going through that archway with Jim and Bob, and feeling the tension the characters are feeling.
In the original version, however, I layered on additional detail. Specific and concrete detail, yes, so that’s good when considered by itself. But we, as writers, can’t afford to take sentences by themselves and judge them without context. Consider what happens when the reader reads the original sentence.
All along their mind has been filling in the gaps with details we considered too unimportant to include (maybe they didn’t further plot/character/setting enough to warrant full fledged descriptions, etc). They’ve developed a rhythm, of sorts, because they’re firmly planted in our world, and they have a pretty good handle on what’s important and what isn’t. Then, out of nowhere, we hit them with “Jim grabbed Bob’s arm and dragged him through the archway.”
Concrete? Yes. Specific? Definitely. But we have to ask ourselves if those extra details are important. They’d better be, because we just hijacked our reader’s imagination with our word choice. In effect, we’ve told the reader “whoa…slow your roll on the making stuff up business. I’ll be the one to determine how this particular action looks in your mind.”
Is that ok? This will sound like a cop out, but the answer is it depends. The important thing is that you’re aware this is happening. Once you’re aware of it, you can weigh the cost versus the benefit. Perhaps it’s vitally important, in this instance, to make sure the reader sees Jim grabbing Bob’s arm. Maybe a moment ago Jim was paralyzed and this is a crucial reveal. (OMG! The paralytic agent has worn off! Jim’s ready to rock again!) Who knows? Only you, the writer.
The words we leave out are every bit as important as the words we leave in.
Where do you draw the line between description and allowing the reader’s imagination to run wild? I’d love to hear it! Leave me a comment below.
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