One of the many skills I am working on is letting readers do the work. Let them make assumptions right or wrong.
Jacqueline watched as a man walked down the stairs of the lecture theatre in a worn leather jacket and felt hat.
The reader will and should start making all sorts of assumptions. Is the man the professor? A student? Why a leather jacket? Who wears a felt hats these days? Is this an Indiana Jones knock off?
The answer to the description can take us many directions.
“Many of you are wondering why anyone in this day and age would wear a felt hat. Some of you are thinking, ,”Oh great another wacko prof”. The man paused and then continued. ,”It’s the only item I have from my father who died when I was five.”
The answer should trigger a whole bunch of questions in the reader’s mind. The underlying one, the one they are trying to answer is: Why is it important for the professor to tell the class such an intimate personal detail.
As a reader who is trying to become a writer and then an author, my process is to reverse engineer from the reaction that I want.
In the above example I want the reader to feel sorry, to have pity on the professor. I use the hat for that. Later on in the story you can use the same hat for a different effect. Let’s say the student and Professor start to date. In a moment of intimacy he confesses that his hat is just one he bought years ago. Not his father’s and his father didn’t die when the professor was five. He admits that it is just a story to gain the trust and pity of the students. The student dating the professor who’s relationship started with the story the hat now has to call in to question everything she knows about the professor. Just as the reader has to doubt what they have been told.
A second outcome could be that the story of the hat is real, but the professor still uses it to gain and inside edge teaching and having romantic affairs with young students.
A third outcome could be the professor gives the student that hat as he is dying and she becomes a professor, etc.
The real reason of course is so that no-one looks too closely at the leather jacket which is in fact a pilots jacket from the Second World War and the professor hasn’t aged a day since he donned the jacket and the professor is part of a secret study on increasing the longevity of humans.
Here are the current rules I have around this concept:
- The readers are always smarter than me.
- The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Tell the truth but make it sound like a lie.
- There will always be people who can figure out what clever bit of trickery you are trying to hide from them. Don’t worry about it. You’ll waste countless hours trying to outsmart yourself with no success.
- The only way you are going to get better is to practice.
- Don’t force the reader down a path. Describe items in simple direct terms. Only give away the least amount of information.
Now if you’ll excuse me I need to get my hat and get back to writing.
As always be well…