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 be crushing your reader’s imagination.

Instead, let me advise you to do 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 place 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 reader see exactly what is in your mind. Trigger the theater of his 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 that was more than enough for me. I instantly formed a complete picture of that man in my mind. In fact, I knew him. He reminded me of a hardware store clerk in the town where I grew up.

In Left Behind I described a computer techie as oily. My editor said he needed more. I said, “Really? Why?”

He said, “Well, 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, “Is that what you saw when you read he was oily?”

“Yeah.”

“Then 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, 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. 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).

We all know the joy of reading a book so full of vivid images that we remember it for years, almost as if it were lavishly illustrated in vibrant color.

I once read of a woman who was thrilled to discover in her parents’ home a volume she had cherished as a child, eager to thumb through the 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 customer.

It doesn’t get much better than that.

Tell me in the Comments below how you’ll engage the theater of your reader’s mind in your next story.

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How to Overcome Writer’s Block Once and for All: My Surprising Solution

How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps