Fiction requires vividness, suspense, and empathy. But do you leave readers enough room for an intimate experience of detail, tension, and emotion?
As Charles Baxter puts it,
A novel is not a summary of its plot but a collection of instances, of luminous specific details that take us in the direction of the unsaid and unseen.
That’s subtext, which, according to A.J. Humpage,
is the implied meaning or theme within the narrative. It can also refer to the thoughts, actions and motives of characters that are not always so overt.
If everything is “overt,” from the character’s loneliness to the cold moss where she rests her tear-stained cheek on a fallen tree in the Southeast corner of the Olympic National forest, then perhaps ironically, fiction becomes drab, tepid, and dispassionate.
Tip: Spell everything out, and you deprive readers of the chance to participate.
In Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Lisa Cron observes that:
When you put together large numbers of pieces and parts, the whole can become something larger than the sum.…The concept of emergent properties means that something new can be introduced that is not inherent in any of the parts.
What’s this new entity? In the best novels, it’s the synthesis of every aspect of fiction: plot makes detail more vivid, context builds characterization, and description intensifies suspense. But there’s more. That’s your readers feeling, wondering, interpreting, and analyzing. Until “The End,” those responses change frequently. And if the writer succeeds, many of those conclusions will prove irrelevant or inaccurate. Do you want surprised readers? Give them some freedom.
When readers can infer, fiction imitates life. There’s no circumstance where we reliably have all the information. So if fiction leaves nothing to the imagination, a novel is not only overloaded and oversimplified, but unrealistic.
How can you encourage reader participation?
~ Subtext in dialogue.
People rarely say exactly what they mean. Your characters shouldn’t, either.
When symbolism works, it replaces setting dense enough to overwhelm plot.
~ Emotional overload.
Provide clues that let readers experience what the characters do.
If your goal is intense drama or suspense, don’t let anything compete with that.
Instead of walling readers out with excessive description and explanation, let readers take the journey along with your characters—instead of getting it secondhand.