Leaving Space for the Reader

I'm taking an internet vacation, but while I'm gone a few top-flight transmedia writers have graciously agreed to fill in and talk about... whatever they feel like. Today's guest post is by Naomi Alderman, award-winning novelist, Guardian columnist, and transmedia trailblazer. She was the lead writer on Perplex City, and I learned much that I know about writing at her knee.

There’s a principle in writing prose fiction – short stories and novels – of leaving space for the reader. It’s something we talk about a lot in beginning-to-write workshops. Novice writers have a tendency to tell the reader everything. What the main character had for lunch, where they work, what they’re thinking and feeling at every moment.

Part of this is a variant of the “letting your research show” error – because writers might have worked out many elaborate details about their character, they like to show them off. This character might be in a car chase right now, but you should know he went to Vassar! I’ll put that in by having him remember a conversation he had with his professor there as he’s driving!

Instead of doing this just relax – if a detail of that carefully worked out backstory is necessary, it’ll come up naturally. You don’t have to force it.

But there’s another side to this question: many writers feel that their job is to entertain, to tell a great story, to introduce characters and explore them. Fair enough, that is part of the job. But another great pleasure of fiction is the pleasure of wondering. The part where you put down the book and think to yourself “I wonder what became of those characters?” or “I wonder why Chet decided to tell Mary about his affair?” or “Where the hell did that monster come from, anyway?” If you tell the reader too much, you deprive them of the pleasure of working things out for themselves, of coming up with theories, of producing a clever explanation with which to impress that snooty MFA at their book group.

But let’s break this down. What are the benefits of leaving some events or character moments unexplained?

1)    You leave space for fan fiction. Whether that’s the book club conversation about exactly what Althea was thinking when she gave Jonathan that bottle of wine in chapter six or a full-blown multi-volume epic tale of Banthan folk, fan fiction is what readers do when they’re really engaged.

2)    You make your world feel bigger. When Doctor Watson mentions the tale of “the giant rat of Sumatra” and then never comes back to it, we the readers understand that he’s indicating that he and Holmes had a lot of adventures that we never get to hear about. It reduces that sterile “I’ve reached the edge of the paper” feeling.

3)    You make your characters feel more real. This is particularly important with a first-person narrator. This character wouldn’t know why other characters have made their decisions. They can make suggestions, but if you the author give them information you know to be true, you’re playing with fire. Too much omniscience and you’ve got yourself a Mary Sue. By contrast, if they play with a few explanations, get the answer wrong, or even express disinterest in wondering about a matter that might be obviously important to the reader, they become more convincing.

 These points become even more important when writing transmedia narratives. Why so? Well…

1)    Transmedia stories already take place in a space that’s friendly to fan fiction. If you’ve tried to build a community around your story there are already people talking about it together, trying to figure things out. They want some juicy character-based puzzles to chew on. Not just “how can we translate this secret code?” but “do you think Robin is flirting with Alex?” The less neat you are with some of these character questions, the more room you leave for fascinating spec.

2)    Transmedia worlds can almost never feel too big. While an intimate kitchen sink drama might benefit from a sense that there’s nothing outside, if you’re making a fictional world you want it to feel big. So leave space. Don’t overdo this, but don’t jump in to explain every reference to a well-known building or far-off city. Not only will you leave yourself handles, as Andrea referred to in a previous post, but you’ll also make your world feel bigger than the story you’re telling.

3)    Transmedia narratives are often told using first person media: to-camera video pieces, blogs, emails, chat logs. Unlike fiction with an omniscient narrator, it’s more realistic for narratives like this to feel fragmentary – to leave gaps where none of the people knew exactly what was going on. Again, it’s important not to overdo this – if you leave too many gaps your story becomes incomprehensible – but some areas can remain mysterious by having characters fail to see exactly what happened. Or if they give conflicting testimony, we’re left to wonder about their motives…

4)    Finally, there’s something transmedia can do that traditional storytelling can’t – that’s to take the things your readers or players have filled the gaps with and use them. Lurk the forums. Read the spec. Sometimes I think that all novelists would do this if they could, because inevitably, a hivemind will often come up with a wrinkle on your story that’s better than what you’d worked out yourself. And if you’ve left some space, you can use it. Is this somehow unethical? I don’t think so – the nature of a transmedia experience is more like giving an improv performance in front of an audience who keep shouting out suggestions than being a novelist huddled in their lonely garret. You sift the ideas, allow the best ones to spark some inspiration in you, and then turn it into more performance for your audience. To me, that’s the great joy of transmedia writing – that the barrier between audience and creator is more permeable than in any other medium.

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