Storyville: Leaving Room for the Reader in Your Fiction

I was talking to a few of my favorite authors, Stephen Graham Jones and Brian Evenson, when they stopped by my Contemporary Dark Fiction class, and in both conversations the idea of “leaving room for the reader” came up. I think this is something that is crucial, as an author, and I’d like to talk about it a bit here today, to try and elaborate and explain what I mean, and how you might do that yourself.

So, what the hell am I actually saying here? Well, let me give you a quick example:

FOR SALE: Baby shoes, never worn.

You’ve heard that micro-story before, right, attributed to Hemingway? On one hand, this is hardly a story at all, right? Are you actually telling us, Richard, that all of the components of a short story are here? There is a hook, inciting incident, conflict (internal and external), rising tension, and then the climax, change, resolution and denouement?

Yes. Yes, I am.

And at the same time, there is room here for YOU the reader, the audience to fill in those gaps. Because there are only six words here, many of them are doing several things at the same time. And you, the audience, by filling in the gaps, actually help to accentuate those things, fill in the blanks, kick it up a notch.

When you write your stories, when you build your worlds up and craft novels, put as much of yourself into the story as you can, spill it all on the page, but leave room for us—the reader.

The hook and inciting incident isn’t just the baby shoes for sale, that’s pretty boring. It’s what’s IMPLIED here. The external conflict is the act of selling the shoes, that challenge. The internal conflict? Well for me, it’s so many things—it’s the fact that to ME, this is a dead baby we’re talking about here. Maybe somebody else just thinks that these are overlooked shoes, forgotten, perhaps—outgrown before they would be worn.

Not me.

Dead. Baby.

I’m filling in the blanks here with MY vision.

So, that internal conflict, the tension that is now growing—that all comes out of an entire narrative that we don’t see here. There is a man and a woman, I’m assuming, maybe married, maybe not. They have lost a child. That is tragic enough, the “never worn” hanging over this story both as hook AND resolution (and change). There were shoes…but they’ll never be worn. In fact, they HAVE never been worn—brand new. This little pair of (as I picture it) white baby shoes—you know those little booties, so clean, and crisp and the DIRECT OPPOSITE of the darkness, the bleak emotions of a child, now dead. A baby, gone.

I made those shoes white. What color were yours? White or black? Pink maybe? Light blue? What style? That’s YOU inserting yourself into the story, that’s the author, leaving room for you.

Let’s go even deeper.

What kind of parent would sell a pair of shoes from a child they just lost? Wait, who said it just happened? Does that change things? I always think it JUST HAPPENED, like days ago, weeks ago, months ago maybe—and now they have ALL OF THESE THINGS sitting around still, maybe there is a crib, and a high chair, and a stroller…so many little cute baby clothes, little jumpers and onesies, and OMG are you crying yet?

So, we have a parent that is now SELLING these shoes. What is the mindset of that person? Father or mother? For some reason I always thought the father would place the ad, maybe me being old-fashioned and assigning certain behaviors to them—the cold, detached man just doing something, trying to do anything to make it better, an act, a deed, being a fixer; while the woman, she is still mourning, maybe having lost the child at birth, and still recovering, or obviously shortly after, not caring about anything else but the loss of her child. What if she died too? What if the father lost them BOTH?

Or maybe it’s exactly the opposite. I don’t know.

All of our personal histories, our biases, our experiences as parents (if you are one)—that all bubbles up and fills in the gaps here. 

We have this simple story that grows and morphs and changes—that’s at the end, a simple ad for baby shoes now taking on a much more sinister tone, and how we think that their lives will never be the same.

How brave are they to sell those shoes? How cold are they? How practical? How lost? How desperate? What emotion and behavior do YOU assign to them?

So when it comes to your own writing, think of all of the places that you can sketch in the story, it’s very personal. Let’s look at setting for a moment, since most of what we did here already was everything else BUT setting.

When you take us to an apartment, a castle, a distant planet—you have to show us that place ASAP. How much do you show? Well, that’s your call, right—are you a minimalist or a maximalist? The minute you say RED isn’t that fast car defined now?

Yes. And no.

What kind of RED even? I expect a different shade on a 2017 Corvette than I do on an old rusty Ford, right?

It’s important to give us some details—there is nothing worse than NOT doing it, and then on page 10 saying your protagonist had red hair, or is bald, or something else. DISCONNECT. So we need something, right?

Let’s get back to that apartment. Just by saying apartment, we know it’s not a house or a castle or a barn, right? We need that. Pretty much a given, right? Now what else? Start to give us the neighborhood as we walk up to that door, describing as you go, but what we see, you’re just sketching here, bits and pieces, not slowing down to give us height, weight, age, and hair color of every person we pass.

Is this a horror story? Literary? Magical realism? That might influence your mood, the atmosphere, what you’re trying to do here, right?

Is this Chicago or Los Angeles or Mars? Again, different—and depending on your story and genre, we may need different things.

You can start far away, broad, and the get closer, or start close, and then expand. Above the city, on the sidewalk, in the hall, at the door, in the bed. Or you can start close and pan out, your call.

That apartment.

We’re picking up one black boot and putting it in front of the other, dark jeans stained with something, right? We don’t typically need to know if they are Levi’s or Wrangler or Diesel, do we? And those boots—do we really care if they’re Doc Martens or John Fluevog or Timberland? Not unless you’re Bret Easton Ellis and this is American Psycho or Glamorama.

Back to that apartment.

The building looms. The building squats. The building, a six-flat, leans to one side in the…shadows. No, in the solitary ray of light that splits the heavy, gray clouds. Your story, you tell me. Brick? Wood? Metal siding? Rotting wood, with faded beige paint?

The door is ajar, so you step in. What do you smell?

All of this is you sketching in the details but leaving room. How we react can be good or bad.

Curry.

What do you feel? You annoyed by the neighbors or basking in the glorious spices, your stomach grumbling? The protagonist reacts, as do you. What about cumin or cookies or bread?

Fish. Man, I hate when people microwave fishy food in an office. Makes me sick to my stomach, and angry.

Incense, or candles—and what scent here?

And there’s some music playing by…some band. Don’t name them and don’t give us lyrics. Why? First, you don’t have the rights to put lyrics in a story, you will get sued. And as for the band? WHO CARES! Unless this is High Fidelity, we want the music—the bass guitar, the snare drum, the horns, the vocals. Here, I’m going to go to the Billboard Top 50 list for albums from 2016, at what point do you not have any idea who I’m talking about?

Beyonce, Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, David Bowie, Frank Ocean, A Tribe Called Quest, Solange, The 1975, Maren Morris, and Rihanna. You still with me? That’s just the top ten. You run the risk of losing your audience. Broad strokes, atmosphere, mood—not details. Unless that detail is essential to the story.

And it probably isn’t.

When I say leave room for the audience, I mean sketch in the skeletal frame of your story, but don’t judge, don’t label, don’t assign everything.

I just finished reading Perdido Street Station by China Mieville for that aforementioned class, and it is DENSE. China really DOES fill in so many great details, but at the same time, he leaves room for us to not only see things, but FEEL things, to react, to build narratives up and assign emotion and relationship to these characters. He never TELLS us what to feel, even when he does label somebody—scientist, artist, exile, weaver, spider, killer, moth, mayor, etc. He leaves room for us to have complicated feelings for these characters, ones that can change—he shows us the world, and we react. Good guys become bad guys, or whatever that means, and visa versa. We see the humanity in dark souls, and the violence and petty behavior in our heroes. That makes us a part of the story, complicit at times, but always present, a part of it.

When you write your stories, when you build your worlds up and craft novels, put as much of yourself into the story as you can, spill it all on the page, but leave room for us—the reader. If you can do that, then we’ll have a relationship, this give and take, we’ll become invested in your story. And that’s a powerful bond, for sure.

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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