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A small painting hangs in my hallway. Created by a friend some years ago, it is one of my very favorite things, and illustrates a poem by Sappho: 

People do gossip

And they say about
Leda, that she

once found an egg
hidden under
wild hyacinths

When I asked my friend to paint the poem for me, I had an idea of what I wanted it to look like — a girl in a white dress perhaps, discovering an oversized egg on the ground. But I kept my thoughts to myself, and I’m so glad I did, because the end result was so much better than what I’d anticipated. Brilliantly, my friend painted neither the swan, nor Leda, nor the egg — instead she gave me a simple sketch of hyacinths in the grass, heads waving. 

Will you think I’m crazy if I tell you that even after 20 plus years, I still find myself searching for eggs when I pass by that painting?

That’s because my friend — let’s call her Christine (everyone say “Hi Christine!”) did something that will also work in writing — she left room on the page for my imagination to fill in the blanks. Because of that, the painting has stayed alive for me all these years as my brain constantly tries to reconcile what the poem says with what the painting shows. 

We can use the same technique in our writing to deepen our story and force our readers to engage. Brains love nothing more than a challenge, and leaving space in your story gives them exactly that. By not putting everything on the page, we hold room for the story to unfurl in our readers’ imaginations. We give them the framework but let them tell the specifics to themselves.

So how can we as writers accomplish this magic trick, this act of giving readers the shadow and letting them fill in the substance? Here are a few things I’ve learned from trying this on my own: 

Start by developing a rich backstory. Your novel is a snapshot of a period in your character’s life — it’s not the entire movie. They had a life before the point where your story started, and they should have a natural arc that continues after your story ends. Know that arc. You don’t have to write it all out — I personally resent spending time writing stuff I will never show anyone — but make it real. Tell it to yourself before you go to bed, when you are waiting in the car, when the dentist is late and you need a distraction. The more real it becomes to you, the more real it is for your characters.

Once you have that backstory, it will inform everything your characters do, from how they act to who they date to what they like to eat. It’s the invisible structure that holds everything up and makes it logical to readers. You can allude to it as needed, but you don’t have to put it all on the page. Think of your story as a first date: you probably wouldn’t spill all the details about your divorce or custody battle or horrific gastric reaction to shellfish, would you? But all those things would influence who you went out with, where you went, and what you ordered. 

For example, a main character in my new novel DARLING GIRL, while charming, is not a particularly nice guy. But he does have moments where I hope readers are sympathetic to him. To make that happen, I created an entire backstory for him, starting from his childhood, of all the ways he’s been traumatized and lost. The reader never hears the details, but because I have that framework, his actions are consistent enough that anyone paying attention can easily surmise that his childhood was not a happy one.

Limit internal dialogue/memories. In THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD by Kevin Brockmeiyer, one segment of heaven is composed of people who are remembered by those on earth. But a virus is killing off the population (yes, it was prophetic) and heaven is becoming less crowded. Eventually the only people remaining are those who have crossed paths with the sole survivor on earth. 

These heavenly occupants know this survivor from wildly varying relationships. There’s an ex-lover, a childhood friend, a beggar on the street. Brockmeiyer’s prose is sparse — the book is only 272 pages — but he’s carefully selected the internal dialogue of these people. He doesn’t recount the entire affair, for example, just a few moments. But together, these seemingly disparate memories merge to create a portrait of the main character that is rich and colorful in our minds, the way watercolors bleed across each other to fill the empty space on paper.

Speak shorthand. If you don’t have access to your characters’ internal thoughts and dialogues, can you use their relationships with others to allude to their backstory? How few words can you use and still have them feel three-dimensional? 

A great movie example of this is in Marvel’s Avengers. As characters Hawkeye and Black Widow battle the aliens that have invaded New York, Black Widow says it’s “just like Budapest all over again.” Clint, stony-eyed, replies, “You and I remember Budapest very differently.”

Immediately we know that these two characters have a long and heavy history, that they fought together in something that must have been epic at least once before, and that they don’t necessarily see things the same way. We never see Budapest in that film or hear anything else about it, but those two lines of dialogue make you want to fill in the blanks on your own.

If snappy dialogue isn’t your thing, nicknames, insider jokes and language are also ways to do this.

Use tiny gestures for a big impact. In the movie Hancock, starring Will Smith and Charlize Theron, a world-weary jerk of a superhero (Smith) finds a new reason to save people when he discovers that he’s not really all alone in the world — he once had a passionate, centuries-long relationship with Mary (Theron), a woman he now thinks of as a stranger thanks to his decades of amnesia. 

The film never flashes back to show them together. It barely even describes their former love — there’s no big long monologue about it. Instead, at one point early in the movie, Theron notices a bruise on Hancock’s hand. She glances at it with a heat and intensity that far outstrips the actual injury. Later, there’s a scene where she tenderly describes walking down the street with Hancock, holding his hand on the way to the movies. As she reminisces, she holds his hand and kisses it.

The brief exchange is so emotional, and has so much information packed inside it— that they’d been together long enough to have a routine, that they still liked each other enough to hold hands and go on dates, for example — that our minds immediately want to fill in the rest. But because the film hasn’t spelled the details out for us, we are free to imagine the weight and history of their love, and how it informs everything Hancock does going forward. 

Keep it offstage. What can have happened outside of your novel that your characters know so well that they’d never describe it in detail, because it’s something that they take for granted? At the same time, what about this event or place can catch your reader’s imagination and cause them to fill in the blanks and make the story their own? 

In Neil Gaiman’s THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, characters mention the Old Country. We never see it and there’s not a lot of description — one person says it sank, another says that wasn’t actually the Old Country at all — the real one blew up — but it’s so firmly established by the characters as existing, and teased so well, our brains immediately start trying to picture it.

Likewise, what action or event can occur that would normally prompt a strong reaction, but your character takes it in stride? Again, in THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, the main character notices that the window on the far side of the house shows a full moon and a clear sky. A lovely evening, aside from the fact that it was a crescent moon last night and is currently raining. But Lettie, who came from the Old Country, is matter-of-fact.

“Gran always likes the full moon to shine on this side of the house. She says it’s restful, and it reminds her of when she was a girl,” is all she says. And that’s all the explanation we as readers get, although it certainly piques our curiosity. 

Finally, make sure you haven’t left too much out. It’s a fine line between firing a reader’s imagination and annoying them with plot and character arc holes. Invest in a good beta reader. Make sure you have your story read at least once by someone who comes to it completely cold — no cheating by telling them the story in advance. Take note if they find gaps and figure out how many breadcrumbs you need to help them back on the path.

Now it’s your turn. How do you give your readers room to breathe on the page? What are your favorite books that do this?

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About Liz Michalski

Liz Michalski's (she/her) second novel, Darling Girl (Dutton) will be available in May 2022. She's also the author of Evenfall. Liz has been a reporter, an editor, and a freelance writer. In her previous life, she wrangled with ill-tempered horses and oversized show dogs. These days she's downsized to one husband, two children and a medium-sized mutt.

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