Guest author Jerry Jenkins shares his top tips for authors, including ‘engaging the theater of your reader’s mind’ and resisting the urge to explain.
A writer wrote me recently and complained she was struggling to get enough detail into her story to give her readers the ‘same pictures I see in my head.’
At first blush that might seem a worthy goal, one we should all strive for. But it’s a huge mistake.
If you succeed, you could crush your reader’s imagination.
I advise the exact opposite: Don’t dictate what your readers should see.
We mature as novelists and artists when we come to realize that the reader is our partner in the effort and wants—needs—a role in the experience.
Engage the Theater of Your Reader’s Mind
The most common response to a movie made from a novel is, “The book was better.” Why? Because the pictures evoked in our minds by the author’s words are far more creative than Hollywood can ever be.
Don’t strive to make your readers see exactly what is in your mind. Trigger the theater of their mind, and however many readers you have, that’s how many views of your story will be imagined.
The late great detective novelist John D. MacDonald once described an orbital character as knuckly. I don’t know about you, but I instantly formed a complete picture of that man in my mind.
In Left Behind I described a computer techie as oily. My editor said, “Couldn’t you say he was pudgy, with longish blond hair, and that he kept having to push his glasses back up on his nose?”
I said, “If that’s what you saw when you read he was oily, why do I have to say it?”
“Hmm. Point taken.”
That series was read by tens of millions. If some saw him the way my editor did, and others saw him tall and skinny and without glasses, so much the better.
For my main characters, which I discuss on my blog here, I provided enough information so readers knew their builds and perhaps their hair color and whether others found them attractive. And I showed them in action so it was clear whether they were athletic or capable or not.
But if some readers wanted to imagine my pilot as Harrison Ford and others saw him as Sean Connery, fine (he wound up being played by Nicolas Cage). And if some saw the flight attendant as Julia Roberts and others as Jennifer Aniston, who was I to quibble?
Two adages to live by
One of my favorite maxims is ‘Always think reader-first.’ That doesn’t mean to spoon-feed them. They want to learn, to discover, to understand.
Don’t do all their work for them.
This fits with another chestnut I used to write in the margins of student writers’ manuscripts and now keyboard into their files: ‘Resist the Urge to Explain‘ (RUE).
I once read of a woman who was thrilled to discover in her parents’ home a volume she had cherished as a child. She eagerly thumb through it for beautiful four-color paintings she remembered so well, only to find that the book had no illustrations!
The author had so engaged her, triggering the theater of her young mind, that she herself had created those very real memories.
Get this right…
And you do more than make your reader your partner and let them in on half the fun. You make them a repeat reader.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
Jerry Jenkins has written 195 books with more than 70 million copies sold (including 21 New York Times bestsellers). He owns The Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild where he teaches writers online.