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Using a Reader’s Imagination

A session with Lisa King

In a past life, I used to study how the brain comprehends and organizes abstract situational knowledge, and somehow connects this to the expansive tapestry of symbols we call language.

Take for example, the following word. Party.

Consciously or unconsciously, that five-pound thought organ of yours just stirred up a host of celebratory associations, ranging from cake, to last Friday’s tequila shots, and everything in between. The people, objects, places, actions, and vibes you associate with parties just became a little more accessible inside of your head, all from reading the word, “party.”

Now, whether you’re thinking about the most recent party you attended (or whatever you and Magda from accounting did last Friday at Applebee’s), or a stereotypical party, rendered down like a fine Au Jus from all the parties you’ve ever experienced or learned about over the course of your lifetime, Science formally shrugs. But, the human brain’s unique ability to synthesize complex sensory and temporal information accrued through experience into arbitrary linguistic forms is pretty darn incredible.

Let’s pause, and for a moment of nerdy appreciation.

Okay, so why am I telling you this? Well, as writers, the amount of detail we provide in our descriptions falls on a continuum from, “Are we still on planet Earth here, or…?” to, “Holly Hannah, we get it already.” And neither of those are places you want your reader to end up.

Achieving balance is important, and the details you describe in your writing should complement a storyline, not detract from it—which can be a challenge, since we as writers like to, you know, write stuff.

When I find myself struggling to strike a middle ground, I often return to my early years in research; specifically, I think about what the reader’s brain is already doing. For example, my newest book, Blue Haven, takes place in a lucrative housing development stationed in paradise, and the mood is outright utopic. We’re talking capital-L lavish. Within the first few chapters, the main character, Aloe, walks into a grand lobby, and this lobby is like woah—or that’s the vibe I want to portray.

Now, I could spend time describing aspects of a lobby that make it a lobby, but I don’t need to. The reader has already activated the concept lobby, just from reading the word. Instead, a better and more engaging pursuit is to describe what makes this lobby exceptional, relying on descriptions that match the mood and tone (in this case, capital-L lavish), as opposed to some diagonally positioned parlor chairs and a check-in desk.

All of this to say, when it comes to detail, striking the right balance is an ongoing challenge for most authors, myself included. But the reader’s imagination is a powerful tool that will do a good degree of work for you, if you let it.


About the Author…

LISA KING is a Canadian fiction author and researcher whose work on veteran mental health has been published in numerous academic journals. She holds degrees in psychology and neuroscience, both from Western University. Aside from writing, she enjoys family outings, ample coffee, and unapologetic napping. She lives in London, Ontario with her husband, daughter, and wonky-eyed cat.

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