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.


The Negation of the Negation

There are lots of techniques to help with building good stories, and one of them works by looking at the general theme of the story. This technique is best used after most of the characters and plot have been developed, but some finishing touches are required. The reason is that the theme only becomes obvious after the plot is ready. It generally is not advisable to start with a theme – readers don’t want to be lectured, but entertained.

So let’s say the theme of our story is love. At some point in the story this emotion will figure in some way, for example by the guy and girl getting together. Now what we can do is look at the theme that is contrary to love. What’s contrary to love? Indifference. How can we use this in the story? Possibly the guy can start off by not caring about the girl in any way and ignoring her attention, or vice versa. Next up, what’s contradictory to love (i.e. what can you not easily have at the same time)? Hate, of course. So, after they fall in love, maybe the guy could (wrongly) suspect the girl of cheating, so he goes off and actually cheats himself on a drunken night out, comes back home with the girl he picked up and meets our girl. So they end up hating each other.

Finally, and this is the crunch, what is worse than hate? How about self-hate? The guy realises his mistake and blames himself for his stupidity. He becomes suicidal…at this point the story can have either a happy or sad ending, depending on the mood of the relevant author .

This worst possible case is called the negation of the negation, or worse than worse. In English, two negatives make a positive (e.g. I didn’t do nothing = I did something). The same goes in maths: (2 – (-2) = +4). Funnily enough, this isn’t the same in all languages. For example, in Italian, two negatives make a negative (e.g. ‘non ho fatto niente‘), which in some sense is more reflective of the way things tend to work in real life.

So what we have is:


Here are some other examples of themes – notice they all start with positives and go towards negatives:

Life -> Unconsciousness -> Death -> Damnation

Love -> Indifference -> Hate -> Self-Hate or Hate Disguised as Love

Loyalty -> Split Alliegance -> Betrayal -> Self-Betrayal

Justice -> Unfairness -> Injustice -> Tyranny

Wealthy -> Middle-class -> Poverty -> Wealthy but Suffering Pains of Poverty

Courage -> Weakness -> Cowardice -> Cowardice Percieved as Courage

Wisdom -> Ignorance -> Stupidity -> Stupidity Perceived as Wisdom

Freedom -> Restraint -> Slavery -> Slavery Perceived as Freedom

Success -> Compromise -> Failure -> Selling Out

Story Ideas

Stories are all about conflict and risk. And the best conflict and risk happens with the unexpected. This is the best way to generate an endless stream of story ideas: just take any everyday situation, think about what you would normally expect to happen (boring), and then think about something dramatically different and unexpected (exciting). Stories are born in that magical gap between the expected and the unexpected.

For example, a woman walks her dog every day in the same park. She enters the park at around 7:0pm at night, and leaves at 7:30pm to go back to dinner. This happens every day, until ONE DAY she can’t get out of the park…..

Another example: you brush your teeth every night before you go to sleep. You look in the mirror to make sure you’re brushing all the right parts. Then ONE DAY you look in the mirror and you see someone else’s face…..

One more (yes, I’m enjoying this): a man takes the train to work each day and always gets there on time. Then ONE DAY, the train just stops mid-way….

Get the hang of it? It doesn’t even have to be dramatic as such, as long as it’s UNEXPECTED. If it’s what you’d expect to happen, it isn’t interesting, even if its dramatic. If someone falls off a cliff, you’d expect them to die: that’s dramatic, but boring and predictable. BUT, let’s say someone falls off a cliff and their body is never discovered…well, hmm, now that’s more like it…

My New Blog

My name is Hamish, and I’m a part-time writer who has just published his first book, Jennifer Brown and the Dagger. I wrote this over many years, and finally succeeded in bring it to publication in December last year. Currently, I’m working on promoting this first book and already starting work on plotting the second novel in the Jennifer Brown trilogy (the ‘Fairyhand’ series).

I’ve started this blog with three goals in mind:

  • To share news about my own writing.
  • To share my thoughts, ideas and tips on writing techniques and story development.
  • To discuss topics relating to myths and legends, and how these tie in with story ideas.

I’m looking forward to writing more here in the weeks and months ahead.