The power of suggestion – what can you leave the reader to fill in? (With help from Victoria Mixon)

If you read this blog regularly you’ll be familiar with my friend, the writer and editor Victoria Mixon. Her book, The Art & Craft of Fiction – A Practitioner’s Manual, is a favourite of mine. If friends utter the words ‘I think I’ll write a novel’, they soon find themselves armed with a copy because of the way it deftly bridges the gap between good reading and good writing. Victoria is about to release the follow-up, The Art &Craft of Story, and asked me to contribute a blurb. While reading it I came across a stand-out passage that I wanted to make into a post of its own.

It’s the tale of how she and husband Jeff created a logo for their publishing company (as well as an editor, Victoria is also a graphic designer). She wanted to use an icon of her childhood, an antique advertisement which features a young woman in an enormous feathered hat with elegant gloves and a dreamy expression. But when she and her husband scanned it, there was too much shading and detail for it to work as a logo. So they started reworking it in Photoshop.

Here’s the story, in Victoria’s words.

She needed enough big dark elements to be recognizable at a casual glance—even tiny—but she also needed her itsy-bitsy little facial features to show up with their soulful gaze. We blacked in her hat and gloves (although the gloves have wonderful highlighted wrinkles in the soft leather) and exaggerated her eyes and mouth. We erased all of her from chin to gloves and then went back, meticulously re-creating only those lines absolutely necessary to give her definition. She has a lot of ruffles around her face, which looked weird when they disappeared. We had to get just enough of them in to remove the weird without competing with her more important elements.

The pièce de résistance turned out to be not even a part of her, but the shadow her cardboard cut-out cast on the wall when she was photographed. It’s only behind one arm (the light came from an angle), but it’s a lovely calligraphic line that thins and thickens as it goes around the curves of her sleeve. We sharpened it up. Then we looked at her other arm, which has no such line. We paused.

We were going to flip the line and use its opposite on the other side.

But then I remembered a fascinating fact about stylized images: what the eye knows should be there it will see even when it’s not there.

So we left off the other arm.

And this is something all writers must remember—what the reader knows should be there they’ll supply even when it’s not.

Not only that, but that simple act of the reader supplying the essential last detail is what engages them, sucks them in, pins them down, makes them part of the story.

When we look at our favorite logos, our eye doesn’t keep going back to them because it’s found every single speck of information it needs. It goes back because there’s something missing, and our eye knows what it is. We feel the satisfaction of supplying the missing piece, the sense of completion, the instant of epiphany.

In the book, Victoria uses this anecdote to delve into the way storytelling works in terms of structure, characterisation and description. But as I was reading I was thinking it could apply just as well to revising a novel.


As you might know from reading Nail Your Novel, I believe in messy first drafts. Pile everything in, then prune. This stage is the work of deep imagination – where I make the story come alive after so long constructing it at a distance with broad strokes. The first draft is where I immerse to let the imaginative juices flow. Description, characters, events, back story – all the detail tumbles out of my head and goes into that draft.

Then I come back to my senses and it’s time to edit. To decide, ruthlessly, what detail isn’t needed and what is. It’s exacting, brutal and transformative.

In particular, I have to take what erupted from the imaginative blunderbuss and make it serve the story. And often that means difficult sacrifices.

Only what’s needed

You’ll see that the picture Victoria started with was lovely in its own right, but now it had to do a job.

This is one of the deepest secrets of good writing – or writing that makes effortless reading, which is the same thing. To take something that is good in its own right – a rich scene or a description or a character – and be able to see what part of it your book needs.

Like Victoria with her cherished but too-detailed lady, I examine whether the ruffles are telling details or discardable darlings. Whether the sensually rippled leather gloves are too distracting. And what I need to make each adapted part fit seamlessly together. If you do this stage of the editing right, every letter of your prose works as hard as it can.

The power of suggestion

Although novels build their worlds though telling details, there is only so much a reader can absorb. Too much and you have a muddle; too little and the reader isn’t immersed. While real life is a broadband activity, reading is like dial-up – we can handle only limited input at once, so writers have to be selective about what we focus on.

This applies not just to descriptions of physical objects, people or scenes, but to emotional states, reactions, textual resonances. Sophisticated writers develop a feel for what they can show and what they can suggest.

When you do it right, you invite the reader to fill in the rest.

And, as Victoria says, that makes them feel very good. It’s as if the book is having a conversation with the reader. It creates fiction that feels profound and resonant; stories that linger in the mind and the heart long after the book is closed.

(Excerpt from The Art & Craft of Story used with permission)

Anyway, this has deviated a little from Victoria’s original argument, and that’s definitely worth a read. You can find it in her book, available on Amazon from September 30

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and is now also available in glorious, doormat-thumping, cat-scaring print. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

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  1. #1 by Jami Gold on September 22, 2011 - 10:39 pm

    Interesting. Unfortunately, I usually write very spare first drafts, heavy on the dialogue, but not much else. So for me, revising involves trying to figure out how much to add and where to add it. 🙂

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 23, 2011 - 8:22 pm

      Jami, I think you’re unusual there – although if Laura Pauling dropped by and made a comment she would probably write your way too. She’s quite often said she has to add in material on revisions rather than prune. Do you find your method makes for a more streamlined writing process?

      • #3 by Jami Gold on September 26, 2011 - 11:29 pm

        Good question, and I’m not sure, as I have no way to compare. 🙂

        In some ways, though, it makes my revisions harder because the bits I leave out are often those sections I have a harder time writing. So my drafts are more like going after the low-hanging fruit. 🙂

        • #4 by Victoria Mixon on September 28, 2011 - 6:15 pm

          That is a totally normal way to write, Jami! Early drafts are for sketching in the story and getting the feel for where it’s going. Once you’ve developed your fictional world and spent some long, productive time there, you get down to the deeper layers where your more pivotal (and difficult) scenes live.

  2. #5 by Daniel R. Marvello on September 22, 2011 - 10:41 pm

    Fascinating. Your first draft process is nearly the opposite of mine. I write the first draft “in wire frame,” including only the details that beg to be included. I focus on getting the raw bits of story out first. Afterward, I go back and apply more detail in the second draft. By then, I’ve learned more about the plot subtleties and the characters, and I know where additional detail is needed (sometimes). On the third draft, I have feedback from critique partners and do more to develop the areas they found lacking.

    One of the most interesting things I’ve observed about fiction writing during my research into the craft is the wide variety of ways we all go about it. The spectrum between pantser and planner, character first versus plot first, and stark versus rich detail seems infinite.

    Thanks for sharing your process.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 23, 2011 - 8:20 pm

      Daniel, you’re not the only dissenter here (see Jami). I get bombarded by details once I start and that’s why I have to write that way. Even though I plan! As you say, there’s perhaps a bit of pantser and plotter in all of us.

    • #7 by Daniel R. Marvello on September 25, 2011 - 3:11 pm

      I wasn’t dissenting, I swear! I think all writers should do what works best for them, not what they think they “should” be doing.

      I didn’t start off this way. I initially started by trying to write the novel linearly with all details complete, but bogged myself down with editing as I went. I finally read about how another writer focused on just getting the story out as quickly as possible, and found that approach worked better for me. But to make it work, I had to plan what I was going to write, otherwise I would be going full speed to nowhere (or everywhere).

      Some day, I may be accomplished enough that more details will “beg” to be included in my work as I write the first draft. My process will look more like yours at that point.

      • #8 by Victoria Mixon on September 28, 2011 - 6:19 pm

        Yes, the details can be overwhelming. If you read Roz’ Nail Your Novel you’ll see how she’s created all kinds of systems for managing the rich collection of details she uses in each of her books. That’s what gives her stories their realistic depth and complexity.

        It’s important to spend a lot of time in your fictional world observing and collecting the details, but that doesn’t mean all those details need to go into the final scenes exactly the way they come to you. Take notes—lots and lots of notes. Then use Roz’s systems to integrate them into your writing.

  3. #11 by Michelle MacEwan on September 23, 2011 - 7:03 am

    Thanks for another inspirational entry! You are right – Victoria’s story about her logo could be applied to revising a novel. I totally relate to what you say about the first draft – it is a work of deep imagination – I love the freedom of this stage – and then the great satisfaction ( and frustration ) of the surrender and sacrifice process and how clarity and new ideas bud out of the original writing. I need to do a lot of the excess writing to know my characters, to know the story and all its details so I am able to tell the story convincing. In my retreats I work totally in the moment – and I can only do this because I have spent a lot of time working on my own, contemplating, writing, thinking, exploring through my imagination.. then I can let go and trust what comes up and keep shaping it as I go. I know that this is what people respond to because I am working from my own authority. I think that is what stands out in great story telling – the depth or layers behind the words. Then there is a real transmission where the reader can sense things and, as you say, respond to the power of suggestion. As usual you have given me more nourishing food for thought and I greatly appreciate it!

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 23, 2011 - 8:18 pm

      Thanks, Michelle! That is a terrific phrase ‘working from my own authority’. It captures so well how part of the process is becoming the master of your material, what you are going to do with it. At that stage, it becomes clear what should stay, what should go and what should be reshaped. Thank you for an important insight.

    • #13 by Victoria Mixon on September 28, 2011 - 6:31 pm

      Yes—you create Hemingway’s iceberg and then only show the tip. It’s the sense the reader gets that you know exactly what you’re talking about that gives your work dignity and intrigues the reader into sinking further and further into your fictional dream.

      You’ve also identified a really important point about writing fiction, and that is that it takes work from two different parts of the brain: the immersion part, where it’s all just joyous flying, and the shaping part, which is a different kind of pleasure in accomplishment.

  4. #14 by Lisa Mercado-Fernandez on September 23, 2011 - 4:45 pm

    Victoria is my editor and I absolutely loved the first book, The Art & Craft of Fiction, which I recommend highly if you are a writer or wish to be. I am anxious to get her part two, The Art & Craft of a Story. She brilliantly writes with comparisons and practical examples that teach and make it easy to comprehend such a complex craft. Love it! Love her. Thanks for posting this blog about her new book.

    • #15 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 23, 2011 - 8:16 pm

      My pleasure, Lisa – I’m privileged to be friends with Victoria and there’s no one like her. Such an inspiring soul.

    • #16 by Victoria Mixon on September 28, 2011 - 6:27 pm

      Lisa is one my star writers—totally committed, totally determined, totally involved in developing her craft. Plus she just sent me a cast & crew sweatshirt her husband picked up for me from the filming of Austenland. 🙂

  5. #17 by Stacy Green on September 23, 2011 - 7:03 pm

    I write a ton in first drafts as well. I’ve got to see everything and prune, just as you said. One of the biggest things I’ve had to learn is what details the readers really need. I tend to want to tell them everything, and that’s impossible.

    • #18 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 23, 2011 - 8:15 pm

      Stacy, I’m sure the biggest improvement I’ve made to my writing is learning what to cut. It is phenomenal how much material I trim away. Keep going!

    • #19 by Victoria Mixon on September 28, 2011 - 6:25 pm

      Isn’t it wonderful, to immerse yourself in everything you’re learning about your characters and where they live, the things they go through? And then to develop your skills at selection for just those responses you want to elicit from your reader?

      Roz has so much information in Nail Your Novel about how to make that skillful selection.

      • #20 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 28, 2011 - 6:46 pm

        ‘Developing your skills of selection…’ exactly. You don’t have to use all of it… just use some of it and well.

  6. #21 by lynmidnight on September 25, 2011 - 10:23 pm

    Yes definitely! Most of the writers I know (including myself) overshare with the readers and lose their interest. But all of my favorite authors have kept secrets, defied expectations, and weaved stories in a way that only they know how to end… I love this post, it’s very insightful! It makes me think about the things I do and the things I don’t do but I should. 🙂

    • #22 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on September 26, 2011 - 7:24 pm

      Thanks, Lyn! It was a great idea of Victoria’s to use the logo as a way to explain how the reader interacts with a story. The whole book is full of clever insights into how fiction works.

      • #23 by Victoria Mixon on September 28, 2011 - 6:20 pm

        Thank you, Roz, for featuring me here. I love how your readers are so committed to the process of creating excellent fiction.

    • #25 by Victoria Mixon on September 28, 2011 - 6:24 pm

      Yes, absolutely. This is the way the craft of fiction works: you invent an entire, realistically-detailed world, and then you tell stories out of it. You’re not making a home movie. You’re creating art.

      It’s the toolbox of techniques of mystery, tension, and pacing that keeps the reader intrigued. But it’s the iceberg of details that makes your stories real.

  7. #26 by AF White on October 1, 2011 - 7:24 pm

    I heard someone once say that reading a novel should be like real life, especially in character development. When you meet someone new, you don’t learn everything about them immediately. It takes time to get to know that person as trust builds and they begin to reveal more about themselves.

    • #27 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 2, 2011 - 10:05 am

      Hmmm, I think that was me in a post on back story… 🙂

      • #28 by A.F. White (@albrtwhite) on October 2, 2011 - 2:53 pm

        Actually I just discovered your blog and haven’t had a chance to explore it in great detail yet. I was looking through my notes and it was during a presentation Elaine Viets gave at a writer’s conference I went to back in April. I will have to check out the entry you mentioned…it sounds like it’ll be helpful.

        Keep up the good work!

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