Garrison Keillor ~ …I don’t have a great eye for detail. I leave blanks in all of my stories. I leave out all detail, which leaves the reader to fill in something better…
Interviewer ~ (But) the (Lake) Wobegon pieces are marvelously full of detail about what’s in a barbershop, what is here, what is there, what are in the store windows. No?
Keillor ~ No. The Lake Wobegon stories are remarkably empty of detail. They are like twenty-minute haiku, they are absolutely formal and without detail. This is what permits people who grew up in Sandusky, Ohio, or Honolulu, Hawaii, or people who grew up in Staten Island for God’s sake, to imagine that I’m talking about their hometown. (from PARIS REVIEW # 136, Fall 1995)
* * * *
“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you.” ~ Orson Welles
* * * *
One of my favorite of many lines from MAD MEN concerned detail and mental imagery, and how writing and art can either facilitate or stifle imagination.
In this particular episode of MAD MEN, Don Draper (the lead creative man at a fictitious ad agency, in case you never saw the show) and his creative team are trying to sell an ad concept to a Hawaiian resort, and the client is uneasy about the design they’ve come up with: a picture of footsteps mysteriously walking into the surf.
Don’s reply is something like (not exact quote): Look, anyone can buy time or space for an ad that a person will see once and forget about. The key is to get inside their heads.
“You get into THAT space,” he concludes, “and your ad can run all day.”
That is one of my goals with writing: to spur a reader’s imagination… to create places and characters that live in someone’s imagination. A book speaks to you and only you; no one sees the universe created by words on a page in quite the same way. Say “school” or “public swimming pool” or “movie theater lobby” to ten different people and each of those ten people will come up with THEIR OWN mental image of a school or a pool or theater which connects with them. The reader then OWNS the work and is making it live and breathe and grow with their imaginative powers, which equal or surpass that of the writer. The writer, after all, is only providing prompts; the work LIVES with the readers.
Keep the detail at a minimum and trust the reader to fill those details in.
This, by the way, points to a reason why (not to get ahead of myself, because no one’s made the offer yet, but career planning is EVERYTHING) I will not take my characters or my story and sell them for movie or TV adaptation.
Take the following place description from my novel MEETING DENNIS WILSON:
“A two-floor tall lobby in an old school, with stairs on either side of the lobby, a bathroom under each staircase, and a mural of ‘great learners and thinkers’ on the walls above the stairs.”
That’s not really a description or a word picture so much as it is a PROMPT. Each reader will take that prompt and fill in different details– color, light, texture, smell, sound– and make it their own.
But… show them a picture of the lobby, one that visually depicts “exactly how the lobby looks”, and you’ve done the most important work for them. You’ve taken away their capability to see the setting in their own way.
You’ve stifled their imagination, in other words.
I think that this is ESPECIALLY true with characters. When a literary work is co-opted for TV or film, the image of an actor or actress– or, maybe, the actor’s interpretation of that character’s persona– is imposed on the audience, and any readers who see the movie before they read the book will come into the book with an image of what the character looks and sounds and acts like based not on their imaginative powers (which are a projection of the reader’s experiences, etc) but on someone else’s idea of what the character “should” look and act like.
And again, the character is taken away from the reader’s imagination.
I have some great ideas for screenplays which I may work up eventually, but as for the the characters in my written fiction, they are print only and shall remain so.
I’d rather have them play in my readers’ theaters of the imagination than in a movie theater.
As Don Draper said: you get in that space, and your work can run all day.