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?

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4 years ago

This is essentially the exact opposite of what I want do and feel is right. To me the author’s responsibility to effectively convey their vision to the audience. Reading, the consumption any media is observational and not participatory.

So there is no point in trying to make the audience feel like they are living the story,because they are watching it.

Nils Ödlund
Reply to  ubaydullah
4 years ago

I’ve come across this approach to writing a few times in discussions on the forums here on Mythic Scribes. I think that to a large extent those discussions have been about confusion of terminology.
For example, I very much agree that it’s the author’s responsibility to convey their vision to the audience. Otherwise, what would be the point of writing a story. The question there is more about at which level of detail you want to convey that vision. Do you want the reader to get the general idea of what you’re trying to say, or do you want the image in the reader’s mind to match yours down to the last detail?

Similarly, how do you define the difference between observational and participatory? What do those words mean to you when it comes to reading?

There’s a certain mental activity involved with changing the words on the page into a movie or an image that your mind’s eye can watch. Would you say that that’s observation or participation?

Reply to  Nils Ödlund
4 years ago

I think that I might have been a part of some of those discussions.

I would want the reader to see the world as I see it, down to the patterns on and texture of the fabric of the characters cloths. I take the phrase “Paint pictures with words” to heart and want that for any reader.

I have come to find the drift between what the author intends and what the audience sees fascinating.

The only people who participate in a work of art, are the ones that helped to create it.

Audience are all observers, they exists outside the art and have no ability to influence its content.

C. A. Stanley
C. A. Stanley
5 years ago

Thanks for this really useful article. I particularly like the onion metaphor.

I don’t know if others are like me, but I build up a picture of a character or setting without actually having a concrete image in my head, if that makes sense! Like a dream, or a feeling. Something intangible, yet containing all the information I need to ‘know’ what I see. In this regard, I’m personally pretty flexible when it comes to adding description later on.

‘Once you’ve peeled a layer, you can’t put it back’ – I feel this is really important to consider when writing descriptions. The last thing you want to do is provide information after-the-fact that contradicts the reader’s perception. THE READER IS ALWAYS RIGHT!

Nils Odlund
Reply to  C. A. Stanley
5 years ago

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you find the article useful.

When it comes to how we picture things in our minds I think we all have our own ways (more or less), and while there are differences, there are also similarities.

The only main exception I can think of at the moment are people who are living with aphantasia, but that’s a bit out of scope for this article I believe.

Mandy Robinson
Mandy Robinson
5 years ago

These are great tips. I am really struggling with this one part of my book and I think your advice made me figure out what to do next.

Nils Ödlund
Reply to  Mandy Robinson
5 years ago

Thanks, that’s great to hear. Happy it helped. 🙂

James P Chandler
James P Chandler
5 years ago

Great article.

Nils Ödlund
Reply to  James P Chandler
5 years ago

Thanks 🙂

Mandy Webster
5 years ago

I like to focus on the details that are relevant to the story and let the reader fill in the rest. I believe readers are better able to relate to the characters when they are able to infuse them with parts of themselves.

TA Sullivan
5 years ago

I’ve always liked the ‘less is more’ approach, and seem to do it without really processing/thinking about it when I write. However, your description here helps me understand the mechanics behind what I had been doing intuitively.

Thank you…

Nils Ödlund
Reply to  TA Sullivan
5 years ago

I think you make a good point. What I describe above is something that happens more or less automatically/intuitively when writing. It’s logical, and it makes sense, and a lot of the time we don’t even think about it.
I’d like to think that having a little bit more understanding of the process can be helpful though.

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you liked the article. 🙂

5 years ago

Yes! I’ve felt that frustration before and you are correct, it is very difficult for me to change the image I’ve constructed. Sometimes I try, but then I notice I go back to the way I was imagining the character before. This especially frustrates me when the “scar” is ignored for the better part of the book, but then at the end it keeps being thrown in my face and I just don’t see it. Thank you for the advice! I like your example of zooming in on the character.

Nils Odlund
Reply to  Aryth
5 years ago

Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you liked the article. 🙂

5 years ago

Sometimes I go overboard with descriptions and don’t leave enough to the imagination. The problem is that I can’t tell when I do this.

How do you know when you’ve shown and told too much?

Nils Ödlund
Reply to  Greybeard
5 years ago

That’s the million dollar question isn’t it? 😉

For me personally the rule of thumb is to stick with one to two paragraphs of introductory description. If there are details I want to add in later I try to make sure they are “covered” initially. Perhaps the character is wearing a broad brimmed hat that keep their face in the shade so you don’t make out the details, or they’re wearing their hood up so you don’t see the color of their hair.
That way you can add in facial details when the characters take their hat off. The person with the hood might have their head shaved bald and covered in tattoos. Until the hood is off we can’t quite know.

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