At the recent AWP (Association of Writers and Writing programs) conference in Minneapolis, novelists Stacey D’Erasmo and Charles Baxter, and poet Carl Phillips tackled the reader/writer relationship. The panel focused on the reader’s relationship to the text. How much does the individual affect the meaning of what’s on the page? How much should the individual affect the meaning of what’s on the page? Their consensus? A lot. I heartily agree.
But reader participation requires “space.” Not the kind buzzing with unimaginable sub-atomic particles, but an emptiness—because not every dot is filled in—that lets the reader join a “conversation.”
This space resembles openness, or white space on the page, or the silence between the movements in classical music, or the blank parts of a drawing or painting. The individual ear or eye fills that space. Novels work the same way.
The quality of the space depends on the fragile relationship between reader and character, reader and narrator. Not enough narrator, and there’s insufficient context for the reader to react, much less interpret. But too much narrator, and reader interaction becomes impossible.
Tip: The secret to handling empty space in a novel is the balance between character and narrator.
~ Let your narrator offer interminable logistics, or not enough who, what, where and why.
~ Let your narrator draw every conclusion, preventing readers from doing that.
~ Let your narrator withhold so much for so long that readers lose interest.
~ Let your narrator upstage your characters. Readers follow characters.
~ Let your characters rely on subtext. Implication intrigues everyone. That includes readers.
~ Let your characters intimate intimacy. Readers want to contribute their own experience.
~ Let your characters fall silent. This doesn’t mean silence while worrying or yearning and
reminding readers of that. It means characters acting, so readers can decide what that means.
~ Let your characters steal the show, with readers deciding who deserves a happy ending.
A novel is an opportunity to enter a world so compelling that we leave everything humdrum, improbable, or amoral far behind. Any real world, fictional or otherwise, is composed of clarity and vagueness, of questions answered or only introduced, of people saying what they think while we calculate whether they mean what they say they think.
Give your readers an opportunity to enter a world of conversation and silence, of empty space that readers can fill with questions they never knew they wanted to ask. Give your readers enough space to reflect on those questions.