Why Reading and Writing are a Collaboration

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
The Ocean at the End of the Lane

People don’t passively consume books, they participate in them. They cast themselves in the lead role, acquiring the hero’s goal, going through their evolution, learning all the same lessons. They feel the protagonist’s sense of urgency. They wait until it’s safe to set their bookmark in the page.

Authors need not write choose-your-own adventure novels to get their readers in on the action. When the author sets the scene, the reader chooses the angles. When the author determines the perspective, the reader adjusts the focus. When the author describes the environment, the reader provides the soundscape.

Writers should leave room for these contributions.

I disagree with any literary theory class that convinces students there’s only one way to interpret a story’s symbolism, that only the astute will walk away with the right understanding. I hate discussions that turn everyone’s translation into something uniform, that homogenize the imagination, that turn text into fixed images.

A line of description is worth a thousand pictures. We all see stories differently.

My reading of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is going to differ heavily from yours. My mind’s art department added some after market modifications to the giant penguins, making them more disturbing. Since those blind birds were livestock for something in the shadows, I decided to see them with their eyes seared shut, wings clipped, and ankles fused together in crystalline slime, their feathers dripping with oil and blood. Lovecraft drew up the creature designs, but it’s my inner Industrial Light and Magic team that assembled them.

At the Mountains of Madness
At the Mountains of Madness

What Reading and Filmmaking have in Common

Film is a collaborative medium. Screenplays are maps, they are not the terrain. There are discoveries to be made by every artist walking down the screenwriter’s path. The screenwriter might have the hero catch the villain’s punch and twist his arm, but the fight choreographer might think it’d look cooler if the villain flipped himself free.

This is why screenwriters are told not to use camera directions like:

PAN TO SILHOUETTE

ZOOM IN ON KNIFE

or EXTREME CLOSEUP – EYES FULL OF PANIC

These lines do the cinematographer’s job for them. Specifics limit the director of photography’s artistic contribution, taking the discovery of the shots away from them.

Screenwriters shouldn’t do the actor’s jobs for them either. Using a parenthetical, a writer could specify the tone of every line, but they shouldn’t. The situation should dictate the delivery. It’s up to the actor and the director to suss out the emotions themselves. Good dialogue leaves room for spontaneity, for the little gems actors give in the spur of the moment.

In the same sense that screenwriters shouldn’t direct from the page, authors shouldn’t do the readers’ job for them. Like film, fiction writing is a collaborative medium.

Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451

How to Leave Room for Your Reader’s Imagination

As writers, it’s our job to illuminate just enough of our environments to let the reader play set designer, matte artist, and lighting department. We layout just enough of our characters’ costumes to leave the reader in charge of tailoring. We identify sounds, but we don’t mark every noise with an onomatopoeia. That’s where the reader gets to play foley artist. We evoke the sound effect, they pull it up from their memory archives. Who are we to debate with readers, when they turn our “muffled thuds” into thunderous crashes in their heads?

When it comes to writing supernatural stories, it’s often best to leave room for abstraction, to describe something seen out of the corner of your hero’s eye, to describe a silhouette, teasing the reader with the details in the dark.

Read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane for a masterclass in supernatural writing. Gaiman doesn’t describe the creatures in this novel down to their molecular level, instead he gives you an impression. Sometimes they’re shadows that disappear the moment the narrator focuses on them. Sometimes they’re so horrifying that the narrator’s memory wipes their image the moment he looks away.

Gaiman gives you an idea of the creatures and asks your imagination to do the heavy lifting. One of my favorite descriptions was something along the lines of, “These ancient creatures weren’t dinosaurs, but rather the buzzards that fed on dinosaurs.”

He leaves just enough of a Madlib for his readers to fill in.

One of my favorite tricks in Gaiman’s tool box is when he has the narrator question his recollection. The narrator wonders how he could’ve ever mistaken his nether-realm nannie’s face for anything but a pile of strategically placed rags, until the light shifted and she was beautiful again. Those fluid descriptions had my mind staging grand productions.

Upon finishing Gaiman’s book, I adored the movie the two of us made in my head. I know The Ocean at the End of the Lane has already been optioned for the big screen, but I suspect I’ll prefer my adaptation to the theatrical one.

When people say, “The book was better than the movie” what they’re really saying is, “My interpretation of the book was more vivid, more involving, and more layered than the movie had time to be.”

They’re not arguing the worth of one medium over another, that’s like comparing apples to oranges, they’re arguing the value of imagination over tangible representation. They’re arguing for their version. This is why I’m not afraid of a scenario like the one found in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where books fall so far out of fashion that they’re burned. Too many readers care about their own artistic contributions to let that happen.

Films have the power to invoke the imagination, the best leave spaces for their audiences to wander in, but books are always wide open, waiting for your input, your vision, and your additions.

Stephen King says, “Writing is telepathy.” I’d say the best of these messages evolve upon delivery.

All artistic mediums invite participation from their observer, but few offer as much creative freedom as literature.

10 thoughts on “Why Reading and Writing are a Collaboration”

  1. Really well put Drew.
    I once read, when I was in my early stages of doing re-writes on my novel, that you should think of writing your novel almost as though you are a film director. Move the camera about, so to speak. Sometimes you need the long shots for setting, sometimes the close up POV shot. I have kept this in mind ever since. However, I know this is not really what this post is about, nevertheless that just occurred to me whilst reading.
    But yes, most definitely the best writers have you paint your own picture. I wonder if what I imagine in my head as I write, is what others see when they read it. Do I *leave* enough for them to paint in themselves? Do I *give* them enough to paint in for themselves? It’s certainly a fine line to balance. I was sat writing this lunchtime and made a note to go back in re-writes and describe part of the main setting for my book 2 in more detail. I’m wondering how much I need to. How much is enough? As always,your post has my writer’s brain ticking over!
    I often think of how the Harry Potter novels were transformed on to the big screen. When I saw the movies I saw pretty much everything I had read. The movie matched up perfectly with what I had seen in my own head and I wasn’t disappointed. Is this a sign of good writing, poor writing good imagination, same imagination? Who is to say? As you say here, the wonderful thing we can do for a reader is take their hand and lead them through to their own imagination.
    Thanks for another thought-provoking and useful post. 🙂

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    1. This is one of those areas where I find a lot of reading informs my writing. Thinking about the books that left me feeling satisfied, I found they left room for my contribution.

      Sometimes this means I remember my ‘Enhanced Edition’ more than the real thing. I’ll occasionally go into arguments.

      This is why it’s always better to show your audience the variables without telling them how they all come together (at least not all the time).

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  2. What you say makes sense. We don’t all share the same mind. We hold different views, see the weird in different shades of light, our experiences make us draw out, pick and choose the elements of the world around us, so I agree, readers can differ in their interpretations. We aren’t sheep for christ’s sake.

    “Lovecraft drew up the creature designs, but it’s my inner Industrial Light and Magic team that assembled them.” *claps* Well-said, love it. And damn, can I share your brain to read books? Haha 🙂

    When you started talking about this in the context of screenplays, I immediately thought of Rebel Without A Cause, which came to mind not only because I watched it for the first time recently and I have recently become completely enthralled and fascinated by James Dean, but mainly because on watching a documentary on Dean, it mentioned that the director gave Dean free rein to interpret the script and to improvise the dialogue. The movie is brilliant and the emotional depth is obvious and without that free rein the movie would’ve felt restricted (like any other movie would) but I like that example because the script was so loose and Dean was given so much freedom on the film to do as he pleased.

    I do believe that scriptwriting and novel writing are to be written entirely differently. Novel writing needs to have more prose, descriptions, emotion instilled in the words to make them sing. But I know your point wasn’t that novel writing should be JUST like scriptwriting, you were drawing the comparisons between the two and I love how you explained this. Authors should let readers interpret and envision, which I very much agree with, because I fall into a story when I read and become emotionally attached and it’s easier to do that and have a fulfilled experience when I feel like I’m participating and living the novel. And I’m glad you used Gaiman as an example because that illustrates and clarifies your point. I’ve had my writing critiqued before by some asshat who wanted every single f’ing detail and I became so annoyed and spoke to him like he were a child, “Do you need me to hold your hand during the entire story?” He didn’t like that. Probably not nice of me especially since he was like a hundred…but he was an asshole who got off on tearing writers down…so he deserved a talking to.

    “When people say, “The book was better than the movie” what they’re really saying is, “My interpretation of the book was more vivid, more involving, and more layered than the movie had time to be.” *claps again* Yes, that. I now know why we say that, I’d never actually stopped to consider much in depth why we say that. I like how you put that.

    Great post, as always, Drew. You are talented and understand so much, it’s quite impressive and I always look forward to your posts.

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    1. Wow, I wish I’d written something worthy of such an in depth comment. Thank you so much for giving this piece your full attention. You’re always so kind to me.

      Thanks for sharing that story about the asshole critic telling you to lump on the details. Here’s my rebuttal to that argument, “Do you really want me to explain the force right down to the midichlorians or do you want it to maintain some mystery?”

      Fantasy requires a bit of vagary to be believed. Sometimes you want the mechanics of your world to be open to interpretation. Sometimes magic has its own logic, just keep it consistent.

      The moment Freddy Krueger’s origins are fully explained, he’s something I can understand. He’s not as frightening. Of course they had to explain where he came from eventually, but imagine how silly it would be if they told you in the opening scene?

      There’s power in knowing information and holding it back.

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      1. Well, I think the post was worthy of my attention and not only that, the topic was interesting to me and something I have thought of before, so I found your insight and viewpoint to be thought-provoking and valuable.

        The critic must have had only like 200 midichlorians per cell, so his powers to create and envision with the mighty force of imagination were not like those of…us Jedi types 🙂 Haha, loved your response.

        And Freddy Krueger used to scare the bejeezus out of me when I was a child, but now he kinda just makes me laugh. I do agree with your point on bringing him up.

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  3. This is a great post, Drew, as they so often are.
    I especially like this part,
    “I disagree with any literary theory class that convinces students there’s only one way to interpret a story’s symbolism, that only the astute will walk away with the right understanding. I hate discussions that turn everyone’s translation into something uniform, that homogenize the imagination, that turn text into fixed images.” It’s so true. I would just say that some interpretations are more valid than others, but I too am vehemently against saying “This is the only way to read this piece of writing.”

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  4. I loved The Ocean at the End of the Lane and mainly because it left so much for your imagination to fill in. I am never that descriptive in my stories, I always thought I had to be, but I don’t think that anymore. It’s way more fun to leave readers with their own versions of your story.

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  5. “When people say, ‘The book was better than the movie’ what they’re really saying is, ‘My interpretation of the book was more vivid, more involving, and more layered than the movie had time to be.'”

    PERFECT. Great post.

    Like

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