Room for the reader

From Jane Friedman’s blog: Gray Space: Making Room for the Reader

Elision is not a word that is often used in story crafting, but it should be. To elide is to omit, or to leave out. And we need to know as much about “leaving things out” of our stories as we do about the things we love to add. … When writers use elision, this is much like the way that visual artists use white space: by creating space within images, the viewer’s brain fills in what’s been left out to complete the picture. I coined the term “gray space” for what writers do when we elide, as we link gray matter, writer brain to reader brain, to fill in unsaid ideas.

I have heard some comment like this, except regarding tv shows. I’m sure I saw someone say something like, “It’s not what’s in the Star Trek episodes — it’s what the viewers are putting into those episodes, and into the world.” I thought at once this was true, and also I thought this was why the best Star Trek novels are so much better than almost all of the tv episodes: because the author is putting a lot of depth into the show that wasn’t, perhaps, actually there in the show itself.

Digression: Do you have any great favorites among the clutter of media tie-in novels? I personally grew up with original Star Trek and like that best; I’ve read very few tie-in novels for any of the other various Star Trek franchises

Diane Duane’s Rihannsu series, beginning with My Enemy, My Ally

John M Ford’s The Final Reflection

Janet Kagan’s Uhura’s Song

Barbara Hambly’s Ishmael

Diane Carey’s Dreadnought and Battlestations

Back to the topic! Leaving room for the reader, right!

[T]he emotional connection that’s made between the writer and reader is strengthened by what the reader brings to the story—their experiences, dreams, hopes, and longings. When we let the reader fill in our intentionally left blanks, we invite them inside our imaginary worlds.Let’s look at the craft techniques you can use to make gray space.

Then we have dialogue, internal monologue, action, sensory detail, and rhetorical devices.

Quick, three guesses about the example used for “gray space” in dialogue? Correct, “Hills Like White Elephants” by Hemingway. If you’ve never read it, here’s a pdf version. This short story is used all the time as an example of indirect dialogue, implication, and burying everything important in the subtext. It’s hard to find a better example, as neither character ever spells out what they’re talking about or how they’re actually feeling. This is kind of the ultimate in “show don’t tell.” While I think you can go too far with “show don’t tell” — if you find yourself contorting into pretzels to avoid telling, you’re probably going too far — this is still a neat example of a story where everything is buried.

It’s true that burying subtext in dialogue lends depth. There’s some risk that you’ll bury too much or bury it too deeply and your readers will miss it, which is one reason beta readers are crucial. Despite the risk, getting that kind of subtext into the story is also crucial because everything buried in the story gives it not just depth of meaning, but also emotional depth, which is the point this post is making.

Not quite the same, but related, one element that some readers trip over is the part in The City in the Lake where Lilienne can hear everything everyone says, and everyone knows this, so no one is saying what they mean. This was tricky to write, but kind of fun. Some author — DWJ? — noted that young readers pay better attention when reading and therefore catch this sort of thing, while adults are more likely to miss it. Could be. Certainly it ought to be jarring when a character says one thing while doing something incompatible.

Anyway, back to leaving space for the reader.

Setting conveys emotion but the more we let the reader decide what that emotion is, the better. A dark forest can be a refuge or a threat, or both. A storm can be a cloak or a danger, or both. Leave out the explanations and let the reader derive meaning by injecting their own experiences of forests and storms into the moment.

Now, here I disagree. Maybe that can work sometimes, but in general how your protagonist responds to the dark forest — considering it a refuge or a threat — is an important part of (a) characterization, and (b) placing the character in the world. This is crucial imo, and so it would be quite wrong and counterproductive to hide the character’s response. Now, you can show the character’s response rather than saying, “Susan felt that the dark forest might be a refuge.” But I don’t think you generally want to fail to provide the response. If the example provided in the post works — “All the trees in the lower field were gone, uprooted and blasted to splintered logs” — that’s because the reader already know how the protagonist feels about that: not excited and thrilled by the power that wrought this destruction, but taking the destruction as a loss. If the reader didn’t know that, this plain description wouldn’t carry much impact.

Rhetorical devices — what does the author of the post have in mind? Only one device is mentioned: endowing an object with thematic meaning and then using that object. That’s fine. I mean, that certainly does work. Aras’ scepter is an object like that; breaking it matters. Should that scepter be broken, there’s no need to point to that and tell the reader that was significant. Just set the broken scepter in the reader’s view and that carries plenty of heft without the author needing to point to it.

Well, overall a good post, I think. That is, I think it’s very true that the reader pours meaning into the story, often the meaning that the author intended, but sometimes some other meaning; and that good stories leave space for that to happen.

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5 thoughts on “Room for the reader”

  1. I also grew up on the OST novels. Other favorites: The Pandora Principle, the five books by Susan Schwartz and Josepha Sherman (although they could have kept more of DD’s Rihanha culture, perhaps), How much for just the planet, the IDIC Epidemic. My absolute favorite would be Doctor’s Orders.
    I think that the issue of leaving space for the reader is an interesting one. I wonder if it relates to the issue of whether a given author allows or does not allow fanfiction based on their stories. (I’m thinking of a particular author pair that always asks their readership NOT to write fanfiction.)

  2. I really enjoyed the Peter David trek series, New Frontier – campy and fun, good characters and lots of callbacks to original series but happens in Next Gen era.

    I also read a lot of Star Wars books – the admiral thrawn trilogy was a favorite, and as a kid I liked the Young Jedi books.

    Have heard good things about some of the last airbender comics, and really enjoyed Ryan North’s work on Adventure Time comics. Was unimpressed with most of the comic book continuation of Buffy, but my sister liked the Tales of the Slayers short story collection about other slayers in history.

  3. Regarding what DWJ said about how kids pay attention, I’ve always been told that kids mentally gloss over the bits of tv shows and movies that they’re not ready for, but neither of mine do. They don’t let anything slide, so a lot of the movies their peers like upset them. They also ask me to explain song lyrics a lot – it’s complicated stuff, trying to explain to a 4yo what the grandma in Encanto means by “I’m sorry I held on too tight”.

  4. You already listed several of my favorites, but Julia Ecklar’s “The Kobayashi Maru” is a fun exploration of the other TOS Enterprise officers’ experience with the titular test.

    Elliot S. Maggin’s “Superman: Last Son of Krypton” features my personal favorite versions of Superman and, even more, Lex Luthor. It was marketed as a tie-in to the first Reeve film, and the original paperback includes stills from that, but it’s an entirely different story. (And I think a better one, much though I love Superman: the Movie.) There’s a sequel, “Superman: Miracle Monday”, which I don’t think is quite as good, but I still liked it.

    Steven Brust wrote a Firefly novel, “My Own Kind of Freedom”. I don’t remember the details, but I remember liking it, and he has it available for download in Kindle and epub format on his site.

  5. I’ve read most of the ST tie-ins you all have mentioned, but I’ve never even heard of the five by Schwartz and Sherman. I’ll pick up a sample of the first one of the trilogy right now so I don’t forget about them.

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