I came to the last page of a crime novel, closed it and laid it aside. It had been a fast-paced, satisfying read. As my mind walked through the plot and visualized scenes where the robberies had taken place, I also tried to visualize the robber, but couldn’t. The author had not described him.
For one of the crimes, the protagonist had worn a disguise with brown contact lenses, but the author didn’t say what his natural eye color was. Another crime, another disguise—this time he was an elderly man with a gray-haired wig. Again, the author didn’t say what his real hair color was.
My wife read the novel at the same time. If the police interviewed both of us as witnesses to those crimes, I imagine each of us would give them different descriptions of the perpetrator because most of our details would come from our imaginations.
Readers don’t need highly detailed descriptions to enjoy a story because readers like to participate in the creative process with us. In fact, the more details they supply, the more likely they are to enter “the fictive dream”—the imaginary world that takes us away from our current surroundings.
Media expert Marshall McLuhan categorized some media as “hot” because they supply detailed, multisensory information that leaves nothing to the imagination. Movies are good examples. McLuhan called other media “cool” because they supply sketchy information and we must create the rest with our imaginations. Books are “cool” media. (But you knew that, didn’t you?)
There’s another advantage of providing scant details: It keeps the pace of our narrative moving. If we don’t belabor our description of characters and settings, we create stories that readers truly can’t put down because they’re eager to see what happens next.
Joe Allison writes both fiction and nonfiction, and has been a member of the Indiana chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers since 2010. He lives in Anderson, IN, with his wife Maribeth.