Leave it to the Imagination

The topic of my post today is the importance of leaving aspects of the events of a story to the reader’s own imagination. Some time ago, I was watching a TV show called The Greatest Scary Movies, which went through the top 50 scary films as chosen by viewers. At number three was Seven Deadly Sins, at number two was the Exorcist, and at number one was Alien. What nearly all the commentators said about these films is how, by leaving aspects of the crimes or creatures to the imagination, the viewer is actually forced to create their own, very personal image of what is happening. This image, created by the viewer according to their own personal fears, is so much more powerful than anything that could be accomplished visually by the filmmakers. For example, in Seven Deadly Sins, we are shown only the aftermath of the crimes and told how they happened through a vivid description given by the killer himself. Because the film doesn’t actually show us the killings, we are forced to create our own ‘mental movie’ of how it happened. This ‘mental movie’ is much more likely to be feared and remembered, because it was created by our own mind.

Similarly, in Alien, we are never shown the entire face and body of the creature. Instead, we see the effects it has on the crew of the spaceship. It is precisely because we never see it that we fear it so much. In fact, if you think about it for a moment, the things we fear the most are quite often the things we don’t see. The most frightening evil is one which has neither face nor shadow.

Now, how do we apply this principle to writing, the realm of words? Now, I’m not talking specifically about thrillers or horrors. The principle is that we allow, to a certain extent, the reader’s mind to ‘fill in the details’ of our story. We can start by not overdoing our descriptions or overloading with adjectives. For example, don’t feel the need to describe in detail how characters look. Readers will identify so much more with a character if they give him or her appearances of their own choosing. For example, if your character is a romantic hero in a novel aimed at women, imagine how much more a reader will care for the hero if she can feel free to picture him as a man that she knew, knows, or dreams of. I’m not saying don’t describe the physical appearance of your characters—in some cases it may be essential to the story—but just bear in mind that it’s your characters’ personalities, goals and conflicts which will ultimately linger on in the minds of your readers long after appearances have been forgotten.