6 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing by Making Your Reader Your Co-Writer

6 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing by Making Your Reader Your Co-Writer

Authors can save themselves a lot of work just by remembering they have a partner in this storytelling game: their readers.

Literature, more than any other art form, is a collaboration between writer and reader. The writer provides the building materials—the plot, characters, dialogue, and details—which readers then use to construct a visual and auditory story in their imaginations. The more involved your readers, the more vivid their reading experience will become—and the better your stories will be.

How Authors Can Help Readers Bring Characters to Life

The trick for authors is figuring out how to get out of readers’ way and let them personify our stories in a way that brings the action and emotion to unforgettable life. In his writing craft book Unless It Moves the Human Heart, Roger Rosenblatt compares this partnership to the one we see every time we go to the movies:

…great movie actors leave the work to the audience. …They just say their pieces and the moviegoers fill in the emotions. A good writer does the same thing. If you have something worthwhile to say and you just say it, plainly and clearly, your reader will add in his or her life and feel it personally. Your reader will think it was you who gave him the depth of feeling that’s unearthed. But all you did was hint at it. It was he who dredged up the great heartbreak, or delirium, or outrage at injustice. You merely created the sparking words.

Have you read a book or watched a movie that connected you to the characters in such a way that you almost hear their unspoken thoughts? The Bourne trilogy, Black Hawk Down, While You Were Sleeping, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and The Kid are just a handful of movies with the ability to accomplish this for me—and, naturally, they’re all perennial favorites as a result.

Good actors make this kind of understatement an art. What the likes of Matt Damon, Russell Crowe, and Bruce Willis can accomplish with a facial quirk and a moment of silence requires more effort and thought from a novelist. Descriptions of character expressions don’t usually carry the same weight as their visual equivalents.

6 Ways to Help Readers Co-Write Your Story

Below are a few tricks you can utilize to leave room for readers to fill in the blanks in powerful and personal ways.

1. Speak Plainly

Don’t confuse understatement with ambiguity. Readers shouldn’t be left to wonder what you mean. If your character is angry/ecstatic/terrified/guilt-ridden, show us.

2. Don’t Over-Explain

Don’t feel you need to explain every little thought and emotion that pops into your characters’ heads. Once you’ve shown readers what’s going on inside a character’s mind, move on.

3. Don’t Under-Explain

Internal narrative is our gift to our readers. Unless you’re going for a Hemingway-esque style (which isn’t recommended, unless you’re Hemingway), don’t skimp on internal narrative. Balance—just the right amount, no more, no less—is the key to effective narrative.

4. Rely On Unique and Evocative Action Beats

Authors aren’t able to achieve the same nuance of personality and emotion as actors on the screen (saying your character stared moodily or quirked an eyebrow really won’t convey all that much to readers). But you can utilize physical responses unique to your characters and their situations to help readers see your cast as realistic and unique human beings.

5. Rely On Dialogue

The subtext offered by dialogue—subtext that often says something entirely different from the words themselves—offers a marvelous opportunity for understatement. Ideally, your dialogue should be so crisp and original readers will have no difficulty hearing a character’s voice and all its many shades of meaning.

6. Show, Don’t Tell

Finally, this oft-repeated bit of advice bears sharing once more. If you have a choice between saying characters are angry, having one of them think Oh, I’m so angry, or showing that same character heaving a raw chicken at someone’s head in a fit of temper—always opt for the latter.

The art of bringing the reader in as a co-writer is ultimately the entire art of fiction. But these few tips will give you a head-start as you seek to deepen your stories and bring your characters to life.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s a story you read that made you feel just as invested as if you’d written it yourself? Tell me in the comments!

6 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing by Making Your Reader Your Co-Writer

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Mic Meguiar says

    It seems all your posts on the AuthorCulture site only allows access to “invited readers.” I would love to read these older posts as I find all your articles very informative. Hope you don’t mind me asking for your assistance to access them!

  2. The novel that most affected me this way was Shute’s novel “In the wet”. I found myself completely inside the narrator’s skin as he comes to realise the shocking truth about what he has heard or is it dreamed? Either way he knows things that are not given to humans.

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