How You Can Use the Reader’s Imagination to Your Own Advantage

I’ve had a revelation. And I want to share it with you.

A couple of years ago when I finally got myself an actual copy of my favorite science fiction book (up until that point I shared my sister’s), I was particularly gratified by the author’s new introduction. At the end he boldly gives the reader license to claim the story for herself. He urges the reader not to think of the story as one that he wrote¬†but one he and the reader constructed together. This was a great comfort to me, particularly because I didn’t like all of the sequels and because I know a number of people who misunderstand this book in various ways. I always felt like it was my story in a special way, and now the author gave me permission to understand its nuances in my own way and claim that–not having to worry about “what the author intended.”

And then more recently, I found this quote by Bonni Goldberg: “Endings are the hardest part to write. This is because they are false. Nothing truly ends; it transforms…So it is helpful when writing ends to remember that you are really constructing a passageway, a birth canal, a place where the writer lets go and the work becomes part of the reader’s consciousness, understanding, and imagination.”

And I realized there is something beautiful about paving the beginning of a road and letting the reader finish it in his/her mind. It’s like inviting them into the writing process. Recently I wrote about different types of endings, including Tolkien’s “Return of the King.” Part of the beauty of all his end narration is that you can see everything happening. Sometimes he is very specific about what happens to each character, but he sums up years and lifetimes in a couple sentences. At this point the reader understands and can picture all the scenes playing out. The reader can fill in with his/her imagination what those years were like when Aragorn reigned as king and the hobbits visited him often. Tolkien gives enough information to steer the imagination of the reader.

I am touching up a particular ending right now and am really enjoying planting seeds for the reader. I don’t have to explain every character’s future in explicit terms. I can steer the reader in the right direction with a few, well-planted comments. When they fill in the gaps (even the obvious ones), it gets them more involved in my ending. It will make them feel like it is their own–like they have a part in finishing the ending just by understanding it. It feels like a conversation.

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