Give Your Reader Space

Monday, January 25, 2016
Give your reader space to move through your story.

When you write, don’t tell your readers everything. Leave space for them to make the story their own. That’s a common enough piece of advice, but what does it mean?  You can read a great example in Sandra Havriluk’s “Five Words,” a runner up in the WOW! Summer Flash Fiction contest. If you haven’t read it yet, and are likely to have a tantrum about spoilers, go read it now.  Seriously.  The next paragraph is riddled with spoilers.  

“Five Words” is a story about a woman who had to make a choice.  She had to decide whether to have her addict brother arrested or not. She chose “not” so her husband took their son and moved out. He has filed for divorce and she must decide if she wants to sign the papers or fight for her family. The problem is that fighting for her family will mean revealing painful childhood secrets.  In the end, she reaches out to her husband, sending him a text. Do they reconcile?  We don’t know. Readers have the space to spin their own conclusions about what happened after she sent the text.

Sandra and I have already discussed this but I’m a reader that loves wide open endings. If you want me to like a piece, don’t just stop. Instead, give me enough detail that I can extrapolate an ending. Don’t leave me hanging. 

That’s the kind of open ending that Sandra has created. Things aren’t neatly tied up, but the ending is still satisfying because we know something about the characters. Because of this, we can imagine how the story will end. It’s open but not formless.

The ending isn’t the only place that you can leave space for the readers.  You can also do it in how you describe the character’s emotion. Get it. I said describe the characters emotion.  Don’t tell us the character’s emotion. Trish was frightened. That’s too easy. Instead show us how Trish is reacting to the ongoing situation. How is her body reacting? You don’t have to make a big deal about it but slip in a detail here or there. Trish’s hand shook as she reached for the door. She struggled to draw in a deep breath as she pulled on the handle, the door slowly swinging toward her. This doesn’t tell the reader how Trish feels but it gives enough information for the reader to come to that conclusion.

Don’t spoon-feed your readers every detail.  It’s good advice, but it isn’t the sort of thing that you’re going to manage in your first draft.  It is only going to come out in subsequent drafts as you look for ways to leave spaces for your readers to occupy as they move into and through the world of your story.  Those are the spaces that they will use to make your story their own.


Sue is the instructor for our course, Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins on March 21, 2016.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--Great post, great advice. I was always told, "Give the reader some credit." Give them credit--think of them as intelligent beings who ARE capable of putting together the puzzle pieces. We don't have to hit the reader over the head with over-obvious details.

Thanks for the reminder. (I like open-ended conclusions, too.)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

"Give the reader some credit." I love that phrasing. Thank you for sharing.

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