The Essential Detail

China Miéville writes novels that take place in worlds of his own invention. This presents particular challenges, namely, how does one reveal this world to the reader while also carrying on with the business of telling the story. After all, if I set a book in modern New York, most readers immediately have their own stock images of that city; as a writer I need only fill in the most telling details.

But in a world of a writer’s own invention the reader begins with a blank canvas. How then to paint this picture efficiently and with narrative oomph? Interestingly, China believes (as do I) that it is most often what the writer chooses not to describe that gives the most fantastic worlds their own sense of verisimilitude. For instance, by simply mentioning (but never describing) Mount Cragmore, or Oracon 6, or The Army of Nin, the writer invites the reader to give flesh to the world of the novel using his or her own imagination.

Lazy?  Not at all.  Every writer does this every time they write.  As uber-realistic writer Andre Dubus pointed out, we are only seeking the “essential details” when we describe a setting—the rest is left to the reader’s imagination. As it should be. Everyone believes what they decide for themselves. You can’t tell your readers that your protagonist is angry, you must, as you know, show that your protagonist is angry, and then let the reader make up their mind for themselves.

All art, writing included, is the discipline of living empty space. We create fertile open spaces for our audience’s imagination to flourish. It is the greatest gift you can give. By trusting your reader to finish your work for you, you are allowing them to make their world their own, which it always has been and always will be—a truth so constant and reassuring we can often forget it.

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