Trust the Reader
Writing is deciding where to shine the light in the story. When I imagine a scene, I place words on the page lighting the pathway, one word at a time. I try to decide which information is needed so the reader can see what’s happening.
I’ve learned that when I’m overwriting a scene with too much detail, I’m not trusting the reader’s ability to fill in the blanks. I pay attention to how seasoned writers constructed their scenes; they didn’t clog up sentences with frilly adjectives and descriptions overripe like grape clusters. They knew the reader was smart enough to paint the scene in their own mind.
An example of this pared-down type of writing comes from my favorite author, Anne Tyler. Here’s a passage from her book, Clock Dance:
“The house had been spruced up for their visit, Willa could tell. There was a pot of pansies on the porch that must have been bought within the last couple of days, because her mother could kill off a plant in no time, as she cheerfully admitted herself. In the foyer Willa smelled a combination of lemon Pledge and Mr. Clean, and when she took Derek upstairs to the guest room she could see the fresh vacuum-cleaner tracks on the carpet.”
With a few details, Tyler paints the house and its occupants. And in constructing the scene, she decides which details will be sticky enough for the reader to build upon.
In one scene from my novel The Headshrinker’s Brigade, my main character Julia holds an early session with her new client Rowena. Originally it was much more descriptive, but I pared it down to this:
“It took Rowena ten minutes to go through half a box of tissues before her sobs wound down to the occasional hiccup. Julia held the box out to her, berating herself for not having a back-up supply tucked somewhere in her office.”
This version goes to the more essential nature of what’s happening. Writing it required me to have faith that you, the reader, would fill in the details with your own imagination. Novelist E. L. Doctorow captured this leap of faith when he wrote, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”