I must have a very short, easily distractible attention span. Hand me a newspaper and I’ll have it read in ten minutes. Jennifer-read, that is. Which means I’ll skim the headlines, maybe glance at a few paragraph headings, check out the photos and captions, and call it good. And then I let my imagination take care of the rest. Probably not the best idea, I know, especially when it comes to politics or world events, but it certainly is anything but boring. I’ve always been like that–quick to retreat into a world of my own making. Perhaps it is the childish side of me, or maybe I suffer from some kind of personality disorder. Regardless of the cause, I have found the images and scenarios created in my mind are much more entertaining than the real life version. And when I read a book, even more so. I don’t want to be given every detail of the forest as the heroine hikes through it. I want to be given just enough to allow me to relive the forest I hiked through as a child, or the forest I’ve always dreamed of visiting. Basically, I want my imagination to be sparked, not dumped on.
I started reading a new book the other day and the first two pages were filled with details. Lots of details. Every character was described, even the ones I met in passing, and most of them were given very unusual traits. Seriously? Does every character have an eagle like nose or elf ears and some sort of unusual gait? Honestly, I started envisioning a side show and not the small town environment the author was trying to portray. And I did a lot of skimming. It’s pretty sad when you can skip large portions of a novel and still follow the story. Luckily the book got better as I continued, but honestly, if I hadn’t been reading it for a review site, I probably would have tossed the book aside after page two.
It is the same with characters. I’m not sure how other writers do it, but characters fill my imagination long before they make it to the page. Which can make it hard when I’m trying to find an image to portray them. (I like to have printed images of my characters, their houses, the areas they visit, on hand when I’m writing.) Nothing on istock photo or google images quite fits the visual painted in my mind, so usually I’ll have to print out multiple photos for one character with little notes to myself explaining which feature is being portrayed. I imagine my readers are similar. After reading a few details, and seeing my characters in action, their minds have already formed a visual. (And then three chapters in we pile on more details, shattering the image they’ve come to know for the past three chapters! Ouch!) So what’s the solution? Give just enough to trigger images, then leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.
Knowing our details should be used purposefully ought to motivate us to choose those that evoke strong, or telling, images. For example, if my heroine is hiking through the forest and I want to convey a sense of peace or solitude, I might focus on a gently flowing stream or a Blue Jay resting on a nearby branch. If, however, my heroine is frightened, or lost, I’ll focus on the shadows caused by thickly clustered trees and the thorny, intertwining blackberry bushes blocking the partially hidden trail.
The same goes for characterization. If my character is snootty and superficial, I may focus on her nail polish, jewelry, or hair style. You would be surprised how many other details your reader will fill in, especially if descriptive dialogue and emotion-invoking action is added. Show them a lady with long, painted nails and four-inch heels–ah, you’re already picturing her, aren’t you? Okay, what if I add that she has bleached blonde hair with black roots? A slightly different picture, perhaps? How about a woman with long, painted nails and her hair swept back in a french roll? Given those details, do you really need to hear about her pants, blouse, and purse or has your mind already filled in the rest?
And yet, at the same time, lack of details can sap the imagination just as quickly as an overabundance of them can. One afternoon I was reading someone’s work in progress about a man who had fallen on some ledge that led him to a secret passage. Very little detail was provided, and when it was, it was in such general terms, images weren’t evoked. I heard there were jewels and stairs–in much that way. “There were jewels and a long stair case cut from stone. A passage way led outside. He followed the passageway.” What did the jewels look like? And what kind of stone? Was the passageway dark? Were the walls also made from stone, or was this tunnel cut from crumbling dirt that felt gritty to the touch and left a film on your fingers? Was it even a tunnel or more like an arching exit/entry way? What if they had said, “To the left of the large, arching cavern, rubies and grape-sized topaz glistened in the pale light of his torch. A narrow stairwell, made from thick slabs of limestone, disappeared into the darkness, beckoning him to follow.”
Here’s two opposing examples.
TMI: (Although I’m tempted to tell you to consult the urban dictionary on this, I’ll explain it. Too much information) The sun trickled through the Western Hemlocks which stood like towering giants, their thick, heavily barked branches extending on either side like giant arms. The few rays that managed to penetrate through the trees warmed the otherwise shadowed forest floor, adding splashes of light much like a two year old would add splashes of color to a canvas. Thick clumps of brown pine needles hid most of the path from view. They crunched beneath Kaitlyn’s feet as she walked. Every once in a while patches of dirt, covered by brown, green or black moss, poked through, revealing what once had been a well-trodden trail. The branches, heavy with pine cones, bright green needles, and the occasional nest, were still in the mid-afternoon air. More pine cones littered the ground and lay in clumps around smooth, gray stones and partially rotting logs. Mushrooms and dried sap covered many of the logs, signaling decomposition. Kaitlyn paused to study one log in particular and watched as a colony of ants scurried across it. In the distance she could hear the soft bubbling of a stream, the kind that flowed gently over smooth stones and tugged at the moist, rich soil. Blackberry bushes wove their way around emerging seedlings and old-growth trees, their thick, thorny vines choking the very life out of the tender shoots, devouring them in a tangled mess of green. Plump berries glistened in the sun, filling the air with the scent of fresh baked pies. More lay clustered on the ground like giant blobs of spilled paint.
Using a little dab, interspersed with dialogue and action: The sun trickled through the Western Hemlocks, warming the otherwise shadowed forest floor. Kaitlyn paused to orient herself. Thick clumps of pine needles hid most of the path from view. In the distance she could hear the soft bubbling of a stream, the kind that flowed gently over smooth stones and tugged at the moist, rich soil. She licked her lips, already tasting the cool liquid on her parched tongue. Pausing to pluck a ripe blackberry from a nearby vine, she popped it in her mouth and closed her eyes as the sun-baked juices exploded across her tongue. Yes, taking a morning to herself had been a great idea. Perhaps if she had done so earlier, she and Devon would not have quarreled.
Notice also, the trees were named, hopefully evoking clearer images. (Example, instead of flower, say roses or lilacs. Instead of trees, say adlers, elms, or hemlocks.) And in the second paragraph, some details are provided through action, hopefully action that helps characterize as well.
Why don’t you try it? Use details to help the reader paint a picture, instead of painting the picture for them. I know you all like photographs, but I’m not going to provide one. I’d rather you provide one for me! Using your words. And remember, our visual image will be sparked by action, description, and dialogue. Use all three to spark (not overpower) the reader’s imagination.
First: An old man at the barber shop. That’s all I’m going to say.
Second: A teen girl at a county fair.
And as always, you can add your story as a comment, send it to me in the body of an email or send it to me on fb. I can’t wait to take an imagination vacation with you!