Don’t Show, Don’t Tell — How to Leave Room for the Reader’s Imagination

We’re all different. We come from different backgrounds, live different lives, and we’re all the main characters of our own stories. These stories too are all different, and they take place in different worlds – our own.

A consequence of this is that we see the world in different ways. We have different opinions, and we have different relationships to the words we read. If you want take it even further you could say the words mean different things to us.

When I create an image in my mind it’s based on what I know and what mood I’m in – and on other factors that I may or may not be aware of. I’m sure the same goes for you, and I’m sure the same goes for our readers.

For us as writers it means it’s difficult (read: impossible) to show the readers exactly what we have in mind when we describe something. We can get close, but no matter how hard we try there will always be room for different interpretations.

We can try and write more detailed descriptions to better communicate our vision to the reader, or we can try and encourage them to create images that fit the needs of the story. Ideally, we would be able to do a combination of both, but for the sake of this article I’m going to focus on the latter: getting the reader to create their own images.

Before I get into that I’d like to explain why the reader’s mind is so strong: it’s because they put something of themselves into it. They use their own experiences, expectations, and associations to create the image, and this make it theirs. It becomes more personal; making it easier to understand and to believe in.

We writers bring the facts, the ideas, and the inspiration, but it’s the reader who brings the life.

Keep it short. Keep it tidy.

When your reader creates an image in their mind, they begin with the information you give them, and then they fill out the blanks on their own.

So far, so good. It makes sense. What may be slightly less obvious is that if your description is too long, the reader will begin filling in blanks before you’re actually done. You’ll want to try and avoid that.

As a reader there are few things that bother me as much as finding out that the story I’m reading is wrong about how something looks. And yes, I know it’s the description in the story that’s correct, but that’s really just a technicality. If I’ve settled on an image in my mind then that’s the image that I’ve accepted, that I’m used to, and that I’m familiar with. It’s annoying to have to change that.

A while back I wrote about the importance of first impressions in writing. We humans form our first impressions quickly, and it takes time and effort to change them. This doesn’t just apply to people we meet but to pretty much everything, including descriptions in the stories we read.

My rule of thumb is that I have roughly one paragraph’s worth of text before my reader has created a first impression of what I’m writing. That’s not very much, so I have to make sure I use my words efficiently.

A Useful Technique

It’s important to organize your description so that it matches the way we perceive things in the real world. It creates a natural flow that helps the reader understand what you’re showing them, just like if they’re actually watching it themselves. I try to begin with the most important characteristic first and then I move on to consecutively less important things.

Think about it as the layers of an onion: the first characteristic is the outermost layer, the second characteristic is the next layer below that, and so on. You can’t see the underlying layers before you’ve peeled off the outer ones, and you can’t put a layer back once you’ve peeled it off.

The tricky part here is to determine what characteristic is most important.

Here’s a useful technique for doing this: imagine that you zoom out and picture that which you’re describing from far away. The characteristics that you can still make out from a distance are more visually important than those you don’t notice until you come closer.

Through zooming in on your target you’ll make out more and more details, and you can add the details to your description in the order they appear. This gives your description a linear progression that’s easy for your reader to follow and make sense of.

Another option would be to describe something from the top to the bottom, or bottom to top. Any direction is fine as long as you stick with it. Don’t turn back halfway and start zooming out when you began by zooming in. If you do, it greatly increases the risk your description will conflict with the image in the reader’s mind.

Leave Blank Spaces Empty

Why do I consider it so important to point out that you can’t put back a layer you’ve peeled off, or that you shouldn’t back up and zoom out halfway through your description?

Like I mentioned above, I think that it’s impossible to exactly communicate my vision to the reader and that no matter how clear I am there will always be room for interpretation. I also think we have a limited time before the reader begins to fill out any blanks in a description on their own.

The way I see it, whenever a layer of the description onion is peeled off, any blank spaces left on that layer are filled in by the reader, using their own imagination and associations – based on what you’ve shown them so far.

Let’s say I’m describing a person. I mention that their hair is dark and curly, and then I move on to describing some facial feature, like a scar on their cheek. In this case the hair is on one layer, and when I move on to the scar on the cheek I peel off the hair-layer and discard it.

What else would have been on the hair-layer? How about length? The hair could have been short, or it could have been long. There may have been braids in it. I left that out, so you can’t know for sure. Will you leave the length of the hair undecided? Can you picture a person with curly dark hair without making any assumptions about the length of the hair? I can’t, and I assume it’s difficult for most others as well.

Moving the focus of the description from the hair to the scar on the cheek also moves the focus of the reader away from the hair. In that moment they’ll subconsciously fill in any blanks I’ve left in my description of the hair – like its length.

This is why I can’t later go back and say something about how long the hair is, because no matter how clearly I imagine that the curly dark hair falls down the woman’s back like a waterfall of raven’s feathers, there’s no way for me to be certain that my reader didn’t think that the man wore his curly dark hair in a short pony tail.

…and I also can’t know what gender you imagined the person to be.

This is why it’s important to be aware of what you leave out of your descriptions and to not come back and add it in later. Your reader will almost certainly have filled out any blank spaces with their own impressions, and they’ll be annoyed at having to adjust their image to fit with the new information you’ve given them.

By paying attention to what information you’ve not given the reader you let them keep their own images intact. You let them put more of themselves into your story, making it feel that much more alive to them.

Further Discussion

When reading a story, do you like long, detailed descriptions? Or do you feel that less is more?

How do you feel about my suggestions for keeping descriptions organized – in a linear fashion? Does this make sense?

Obviously, there are exceptions to all of the above. Do you have any examples of situations or stories where very long descriptions have worked well, or where a writer has had success with non-linear descriptions? What’s your personal experience with this?

Nils Ödlund