Here’s an excerpt from a writing contest entry where a man is driving to San Diego with the servant girl he’s just given a Rolex watch—a girl who gave him something he valued much more:

Amir’s assignment had been to gain access to Bonnie Becker’s house, using Marie’s position as a live-in domestic with lawful possession of the keys and codes for all of the doors, gates, and alarms. Marie had given them to him without hesitation. She was in love with him – and besides, she would still be a prostitute in Juarez if he hadn’t rescued her last New Year’s Eve. Nearly every prostitute wished for a prince to take her away from a miserable life on the street. Marie had actually found one.

Amir’s drive to San Diego was almost uneventful. Marie’s body was discovered two weeks later on a remote trail behind Telegraph Pass just off US 8, less than five miles from Wellton, Arizona. The death certificate indicated cause of death “unknown,” and she was buried, “Jane Doe with Rolex.”

Takeaway # 1:  Showing is better than telling–even in narrative summary

In the preceding scene, when he was in the Becker house, we learned that “Amir was not a murderer, rapist, or thief. He needed the watch because he wanted it found in Marie’s possession.” Why? So Marie would be blamed for the theft of the rest of Bonnie Becker’s jewelry. With this and other touches, the author skillfully portrays Amir as a man devoid of conscience or feelings.

The interesting sentence in the above passage is this one: “Amir’s drive to San Diego was almost uneventful.” It’s interesting because of what it doesn’t tell us. We know from the next sentence that Amir has killed Marie, but the murder is supplied by the reader’s imagination. The reader has actually created a scene in the novel. And to that reader, Amir seems fully what he is: a man who’d as soon kill you as look at you. The fact that there isn’t even a line-space between that sentence and the one informing us of the discovery of Marie’s body makes the killing seem even colder. She didn’t matter, didn’t matter at all. Wasn’t worth a second’s pause in the narrative.

When you enlist your readers’ imaginations, you’ve engaged them at a deep level. When you spell things out for them, explain things to them, fill them in, you deprive them of the pleasure of figuring things out for themselves.

Takeaway # 2: Less is often more when it comes to cultivating reader engagement

Here’s a passage from another novel I edited in which a young Indian named Swami dreams of making his way in America but keeps getting entangled in the problems of his large, loving, troubled family. At the end of a chapter in which his appa (father) has failed at yet another business venture and Swami has struggled with feelings of sympathy and shame toward him, we read:

I assumed Appa was at one of the aunts’ houses and ransacked the kitchen. All I found was some leftover rice and a bowl of lentils, which I ate with buttermilk. When he hadn’t returned at bedtime, I washed all the pots and pans and went off to bed. An hour later I heard his heavy footsteps. I prayed he had already eaten, but I heard him slide the lids off the pots I’d washed.

“Swami, didn’t you cook today?”

I jumped out of bed. “I ate some leftover lentils from the afternoon, but I can cook you some rice. And we have a little buttermilk.”

He shook his head and walked over to his cot. He took off his street clothes, folded them and put them away. He then lay down and straightened his legs slowly and looked at the ceiling. He watched the ceiling for a long while, and I watched him.

The chapter ends.

Swami feels guilty about having eaten the last bit of food in the house except for the rice and a little buttermilk. He feels responsible for not being able to alleviate the family’s various misfortunes. The very sight of his father makes him feel sad. The reader watches the father go to bed, the son watch the father—and comes up with all of these feelings without having a single one of them explained. In context, the little scene is wonderfully poignant.

Takeaway # 3: Leave sometime to your readers’ imaginations

People love to pick up on the codes from the signals we all put out, and in fiction it’s one of your strongest forms of reader participation. So the less you explain things to your readers, especially characters’ emotions, the more intense their involvement. There will be times when an explanation will be unavoidable or even desirable, but as a general rule, when you catch yourself explaining how a character feels, first see if the emotion can’t be discerned from what you’ve already written. If it can’t, try to find a way to make that possible.

Phrases like “I was terrified,” “He made me so nervous I could hardly speak,” and “My heart was beating so fast I was afraid she’d hear it,” show up with dismaying regularity in the fiction of novice writers. But bestselling authors like James Patterson also get panned for their writing style, which is given to emotional clues like the bold-faced one in this passage:

The FBI ADIC, or assistant director in charge, walked with me into the bank lobby. My stomach fell. Two female tellers were lying on the floor. They were dressed in dark blue business suits, now stained with their blood. Both were dead. Their head wounds indicated they had been shot at close range.

“Executed. Goddamnit. Goddamnit,” Agent Cavalierre said as we stopped at the bodies.

Any reader’s imagination would come up with the appropriate emotion if left alone with the blood-soaked bodies (and probably do a better job of it than a fallen stomach). Notice, also, that “Both were dead” is a totally unnecessary explanation. Presumably tellers with head wounds showing they’ve been shot at close range—who’re immediately referred to as having been “executed”—are no longer among the living. Not only do readers love to figure things out for themselves, they hate having the obvious explained to them.

Let’s say you’re writing a scene in which two of your characters confront each other for the first time in years, each with at least a decade’s worth of stored-up resentment. The consequences of the event they fell out over are long spent; the person who divided them is long dead. They were once close and have a chance now to start afresh. You can make all of this clear, spoon-feeding your readers, rendering them totally passive, and if you write the scene well enough, they’ll be interested in it. Or you can have the two slowly approach each other. Your point-of-view character notices how the other looks and suggests that they go for a cup of coffee. The answer is “Why not?” End of scene. If you’ve done a good job with these characters, the reader will supply a rich reunion. They won’t just be interested, they’ll be involved—at a much deeper level. Because something of themselves will have been invested in the scene.

What it comes down to is this: nonfiction readers crave information, fiction readers crave experiences. You can often give them what they crave by wielding the power of what you leave out.

author avatar
Renni Browne
Renni Browne has been an editor for over fifty years and founded The Editorial Department in 1980. She is even better known as the coauthor of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, its first edition published by HarperCollins in 1991 and still a best-selling craft book for writers.