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Thursday, 19 November 2009

Trusting the Reader

I've just been having a conversation with people in my creative writing class about trusting the reader. Admittedly this was in a session about poetry, but I think it is true of all writing. As a writer I am too often guilty of trying to force the reader's view by over-informing them. It is as if we want to force the reader into a corner so that they have no option but to view the imaginary world in the same way as we do when we are writing it. To make sure they have 'our picture' we over-describe every detail, leaving the reader with nothing to do except read a detailed report of the events.

But the best books are those that leave most of it to the reader's imagination, so that the two of us - the writer and the reader, are both carrying equal responsibility for imagining the book. This makes for a vivid experience for the reader, who then truly owns the book. For a writer, this means being sparing with the detail and precise in our use of language, and avoiding telling too much.

I much admired Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which was a harrowing book, but the nightmare vision was achieved by allowing our own memories and fears to inhabit the blank spaces in his beautifully open prose.

For a writer of historical fiction this is a particular temptation - there is so much lovely detail in the research I could add, but I have to restrain myself, and continually ask the question: Is this the detail that will conjure the scene for the reader, or is it just more icing on an already over-laden cake?

(that's one metaphor that will definitely have to go!)


  1. You make a really good point, Deborah. This is also one of the big differences between a book and a film; a film fills in all the gaps which the book leaves to the reader, and if the film is of a much-loved book, then it can clash horribly with what the reader has in mind. Where description is concerned, less is often more.

  2. Hello Frances, great to see your comment. Yes, I agree, if I have read a book and liked it, I am often wary of seeing the film - the latest in this category being "The Time Traveller's Wife." I can't imagine how they can do this on film without ruining my self-constructed images of the characters, who in my mind were able to be several ages at once - not something possible on screen!