Previously, on Storytelling: “Writing-the-reader’s-dreams is an idea that suggests the reader discovers meaning for herself. She is struck with an orgasmic rush of insight that carries the burden of importance. Approached like this, the idea can seem strange, but it is elemental to the nature of fiction. In non-fiction, the communication and elucidation of an idea is the point. To be misunderstood is failure. In fiction, to be misunderstood can be glorious and profound. When the story interacts with the reader, something new and unexpected is created, full of meaning that the author could never have foreseen but which holds great significance for the reader.”
Our goal is to facilitate the experience of discovery for the reader, and to do that we must allow room for the unexplained. We must let go of our fear that something will be missed. Let it be missed. Let it be interpreted in ways you never imagined. Let it be.
My first hint of the power of this experience came while watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my roommate. In “Time’s Arrow”, one character is clearly Mark Twain, but my roommate put together from the clues that another character was Jack London. He was nearly out of his seat with excitement, but whatever emotional impact that discovery had, it was lost when the episode spoonfed the audience that information at the end.
Now, in that particular episode, the writers had a choice to make. For those of us who didn’t catch the clues, the revelation at the end could be a nice twist, or at least a surprise. These are the revelations where you compete with your reader, and their satisfaction is in beating you (or failing to do so). They expect the identity of the killer to be revealed and want to test that revelation against their own guesses. The Star Trek writers’ choice to reveal the identity of the character was probably justified, and it’s likely that more people enjoyed the surprise than were let down by the information being given away.
However, television is riddled with dialogue that offers a little hidden reference and follows it up immediately with the spoonfed answer. No viewer ever feels left out for not being aware of some pop-culture reference. This is an extreme example of the other end of the spectrum, where nothing is ever left unexplained, and it is a deadening experience.
How much you explain and how much you leave unsaid will be up to you and the kind of story you’re telling, but any time your reader can gain insight and not have you strip it away with an explanation later, she takes a little more ownership over the tale. It becomes less your dream and more her own.
In my initial pass at writing dialogue, I will often have my character say a line that explains something hitherto only hinted at, and that line will be followed up by something more nuanced and natural. When this happens, the dialogue feels stilted. The character is speaking on the author’s behalf before speaking on her own. On the second pass, I will rediscover the necessity of removing the line of explanation, and suddenly, the dialogue feels real and vital and carries with it hints for deeper aspects the reader must ferret out for herself.
Crafting a style that allows for discovery-reading takes bravery. You will have included access to depths that you can’t be sure anyone will explore. In your imagination, every reader skims over the story on the most surface level and everything you intended is missed. This is a terror we must learn to control. Let it be.
When we continue on this subject, we will move from the reader discovering secrets hidden in your story to your story unlocking secrets hidden in the reader’s psyche. This is where it really gets interesting.
See you then.
P.S. — Say hi on Twitter, and let me know if you have blog posts touching on the themes covered in this series. I will close the series with links to the best and most relevant.
Featured Image Info:
The Dream (1910) Henri Rousseau