Good Writers Are So Lazy, They Make Readers Do All the Work!

This is a guest post by Jason Black.

Read any half-dozen writing blogs, and they’ll be full of advice on how to craft dramatic scenes, how to write realistic dialogue, how to create vivid settings, and all that jazz. Add in the need for a compelling hook, character arcs, rising tension and stakes, and it begins to sound like real work!

I guess it is if you look at it that way. But the way I look at it, good writers are lazy. They’re so lazy, in fact, they co-opt the reader into doing most of the work for them.

Get Your Readers to Fill in the Blanks

Experienced writers have learned that less really is more. Readers have great imaginations, and experienced writers have learned how to tap into them to make their own work come across more vividly and more believably. Experienced writers have learned how to give only the essential details of a scene in such a way that readers imagine everything else.

By letting the reader imagine all the filler details, the stuff that’s not actually important to the plot, readers create for themselves a scene that is both vivid and completely believable.

What Blanks Should You Leave for Your Readers?

Let’s take a quick example:

Owen stepped into the cool dark of the barn, praying he had arrived first. The smell of rotting hay made him wonder how long since this barn saw any legitimate use. Probably a long time, Owen thought. Whoever used to run this farm must have been driven out of business years ago, when the corporate mega-farms bought up the heartland.

He patted the cold steel lump under his sports coat for comfort, and looked for someplace to hide. A dark corner not cut by the occasional knife of sunlight slicing between the wide old pine boards. Nothing legitimate happening here today, that’s for sure.

Think about the physical setting in that little vignette. Imagine it as though this scene were in a movie. What would it look like? Have you got a mental picture?

Good. Now notice what I didn’t say about the barn.

I didn’t say how big it is, or how tall. I didn’t give the color or whether it has a silo attached to one side. Maybe you imagined it big and red, with the classic two-pitch sloped roof and a farmhouse not too far away. Maybe you imagined it painted green, or brown, or with the words “Henderson’s Farm” on the side in huge white letters. Maybe you imagined it surrounded by miles of monoculture corn crops, or maybe wheat, or potatoes, or soybeans.

The Most Vivid Reading Experience Comes From the Reader’s Imagination

Whatever you imagined, the picture was vivid and believable for you, because it came from you. You brought your own unique concept of what a disused old barn is like, based on your unique life experiences. The barn you imagine is likely to be different from the one I imagine, but that’s okay. By making you fill in the details, you’ll naturally fill in details that are the most vivid, believable details for you. As will every other reader.

As long as I help you imagine the barn to be empty and disused, suitably isolated as to make a good spot for a clandestine meeting, then the rest is immaterial. Why should I work hard inventing immaterial details, when my picture of a barn, drawn from my life, is guaranteed to be less vivid and believable to my readers than their picture of a barn, drawn from their lives?

If I’m smart, I won’t. I’ll be lazy, and make the reader fill that in for me.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What details are you leaving to your readers’ imaginations in your latest scene? Tell me in the comments!

Good Writers Are So Lazy, They Make Readers Do All the Work!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

About the Author: Jason Black is a freelance book editor who actively blogs about character development and who appeared as a book doctor at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason, you can visit his website Plot to Punctuation.

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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.

Comments

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks for the kind words!

    I would argue, though, that even when building an alien world, you should still err on the side of describing LESS, not more.

    The trick is to be clever in what you elect to describe. Readers will, in the absence of any other guidance, fill in details that are (as I said) believable for the, but also drawn from the real world we live in.

    So if you’re building an alien world, your job is to portray what’s DIFFERENT about it, not what’s the same. We’ll assume everything works the same–e.g. that doors have hinges and that the hinges are located on the side of the door, not the top–unless you tell us otherwise.

    Save your wordcount for describing what’s different. We’ll fill in the rest with believable stuff that’s the same, and you win.

  3. Great thoughts–I’m going to have to remember them as I’m rewriting my current WIP.

  4. Jason, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. Whenever I get bogged down in a description, I try to remember that “less is more” and that the reader can fill in his/her own definition of what is frightening, beautiful, horrifying, etc. I also try to remember to consider all the senses and possibly supply a smell or sound in place of a sight. Thanks for the great tip.

  5. Great points, I couldn’t agree more. I’m currently working with an alien setting and have debated the question of how much detail is necessary.

    As a reader I’m not terribly interested in an over abundance of details–I form my own pictures as you say. Nice to hear it from someone else and thanks for the permission to be lazy!

  6. Great point! I’d like to add also that it’s very effective to add one or two vivid important details that bring things to life for the reader without bogging them down.

  7. You are right. Let the reader fill in the details from his or her imagination. Important to remember this and not “overdo” description.

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  10. Great advice. To tell the truth, I always tend to get tired when the writer start putting way too much details. And I loved you Lazy analogy 😀

  11. I cannot say AMEN enough to this. Great article and thanks for writing it. I have always held that minimalism is the best approach to writing. But some writers are afraid of that word. They think it’s boring. But the best minimalist, writers like Hemingway, McCarthy, and Chekhov, are far from boring. To me, boring writing involved superfluous details as if I’m not clever enough to imagine a scene for myself. We should all look at Hemingway’s Iceberg notion of writing.

  12. Thanks for this good post. I’m in the middle of a rewrite, and I’ll be very mindful of this advice as I forge on.

  13. James M. says

    Very helpful advice! This reminds me of something I learned from another post not too long ago, that a writer should use details that wouldn’t be obvious to the reader. The reader can fill in the blanks for obvious things, but it’s up to the writer to do the rest. So far that’s helped me to focus on what makes a character, place, or event in a story more interesting.

  14. Hi Jason,

    I like your idea of creating spaces and leaving it to the reader to fill in those spaces with their own imaginings. For me, I guess it’s like seeing the movie of the book and why it is always so disappointing. This movies we make in our own minds are always so much more vivid and detailed than anything from a studio.
    Thanks for your work.
    Bren Murphy

  15. Ricardo Medley says

    Hey, I have been listening to your podcast for quite some time. On and off really, but I am familiar with it. I am a novice writer, self taught, and no degree referenced into fiction writing. The only thing that I do is read and highlight things that I find are noteworthy. A line from Gone Girl sums up what you’re describing above. “The background was a bar, I knew the sound well enough: the murmur of drinkers, the clatter of ice cubes, the strange pop of noise as people called for drinks or hailed friends.” -Gillian Flynn. This is when I realized the technique seems to add general details about the setting. Things that are true about the setting no matter, in this case, what bar you’re in. Just wanted to share what I learned. I hope you will continue to do the same. Follow me on instagram @medleywritesonmeds. Cheers!

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  1. […] Black tells us that writing doesn’t have to be hard—just be lazy and let the readers do all the work. Rene Denfeld and Stephanie Feldman discuss the limitations of writing to genre and the […]

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