Have you ever seen a movie based on a book you loved? You probably left the theater telling your friends, “The book was better.”
Even if the movie featured some of your favorite actors and jaw-dropping special effects, odds are you remembered the book as a more colorful, emotionally engaging version of the story than what you saw on the big screen.
That’s how I felt when I saw Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 version of “The Great Gatsby,” starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The novel was a real watershed experience of my high-school years. It gave me an immersive experience of the “Roaring Twenties.” But the movie was disappointing. Why?
Best-selling author Jerry Jenkins would say it was because the book had triggered the theater of my mind. It sparked my imagination instead of telling me in detail what happened. My imagination supplied a much more vivid picture of the story than what Hollywood could give me in the theater. This is a key advantage that a book has over a movie.
It’s also a clue to what you and I must achieve in our writing. Instead of giving the reader a detail-laden description of every scene and every character, we need to suggest these things to the reader and allow her to enjoy the fun of imagining it for herself.
“The best description suggests just enough to ignite the reader’s mind,” Jerry says.
So how much is enough? Just enough to point a reader in the direction the characters are going, then gets out of the way. Put your reader in the driver’s seat. Evoke the reader’s feelings about your characters, setting, and time period. The reader will see a somewhat different picture than you do—and that’s OK. The reader now owns the story as much as you do.
Your book is the reader’s ticket to another world, not an illustrated encyclopedia of that world. Just point the way and let your reader paint the scene.