How to Write Descriptions in Fiction, Part 5: The Reader as Co-Author

ReadingCreating a story world with words is vastly different from creating worlds on a movie set. The set designer must imagine every detail and fill in every corner. If he left a bit of blank canvas or bare plywood, it would be jarringly obvious.

The writer, on the other hand, should never even try to fill in every last detail. He has a secret weapon that sets his craft apart from other art forms: The reader is his co-author.

This is the last post in our October series on how to write descriptions. If you’re interested in the first four posts, the links are here:

Two Minds, One Story

Sometimes I wonder why, in this age of movies and television, books remain so popular. When you’re watching the screen, you can literally see and hear everything, instead of just imagining sights and sounds. It seems like movies trump books when it comes to creating a realistic experience for the viewer.

Or do they?

Have you ever watched the making-of-the-movie documentaries for the Lord of the Rings trilogy? The effort that went into every last detail is astounding. From the Golden Hall of Edoras to the towering city of Minas Tirith, every last Anglo-Saxon scroll and potted plant was accounted for.

Impressive as that is, something really unique happens when a reader opens a book. The author can’t possibly list every last detail within the story world. But where the author leaves blank canvas and bare plywood, the reader fills it in.

And what does the reader use to fill in those blanks? Memories from his or her own life experiences.

Maybe you describe a pony-tailed man in a leather jacket. Your reader has probably seen, met, or known somebody like that. On her own, she decides to add a scruffy beard and a pierced eyebrow. Your book never mentions anything like that. But your reader is filling in her own details, based on her own experiences.

That, I think, is one of the reasons why books remain popular. They allow the reader to become co-creator of the story. They become a place where the fictional world and the real world meld. Because of this secret weapon, a good story holds the potential of becoming even more real than a movie–even though the movie uses real sight and sound.

The question now becomes, How can we maximize this weapon? How can we write in such a way that we free the reader’s mind to create the rest of the story himself?


That’s the key in a single word.

Now, you may have been told, over and over again, to avoid writing clichés. The Irish cop is probably the most famous example–spouting “Top o’ the marnin’ to ye,” left and right.

But let’s not be hasty. If you know how to use cliché, it can be one of your greatest tools.

There are some things in our culture that are familiar to all of us. Think again about the man with the ponytail and the leather jacket. He’s a biker cliché. Everybody’s seen a dude like that. That’s what makes the basic template, if you will, so powerful. Everybody’s seen a ponytailed biker. It only takes a very few words to create a strikingly vivid picture in the reader’s mind. Why? Because the material is already there.

That’s why it’s far more effective to start with a cliché than to create something from scratch.

The problem with cliché is when you just plug in the basic template and never bother to set the customizations.

Biker. With a ponytail. And a leather jacket. That’s the template. But there are so many optional add-ons.

  • Solid tattoos up his arms. Or maybe just one that says “Mom.”
  • Member of a local biker club for Nam vets. Or a Hell’s Angel.
  • Beer-bellied. Or muscles bulging out of his sleeves.
  • A hot girl perched on the seat behind him. Or a toy poodle wearing its own biker vest.

These are some pretty common biker add-ons. From there, you can opt for even more advanced options This is where you go “off-road” and start coming up with your own stuff. Maybe your biker dude keeps a leather journal in his gear. Or a professional-quality digital camera to photograph roadside scenery for his photography blog.

The more customizations you add on, the further you remove your character from the basic cliché and make him into a human that your reader can bond with. But the cliché at the root of his character will always be there, creating that instant connection with the photo gallery already inside the reader’s mind.

When you start with a cliché, you can spend less time slogging the pace down with descriptions and more time telling the story, without sacrificing the sense of realism.


If you’ve been following this entire five-week series (what a trooper), you may be feeling now as if you have a brimming arsenal of tools for writing description.

Despite all that, sometimes less can really be more when it comes to describing your story world. All you need is just enough to trigger your reader’s imagination. He’ll take over from there, complete your story, and meld his real world with your fictional world. Sometimes a cliché is just what you need to get the process started.

That’s the end of our series on writing description. Hope you picked up something useful!

You’re welcome to subscribe to stay up-to-date on writing and indie publishing advice from Carrie and me. We’ll even give you a free ebook, just to say thanks! Writing a Novel Is Like Walking a Cat.

Now, here’s a brain teaser for you: Do you have a character who’s a cliché? What customizations have you added, or could you add, to give him more depth? Tell us in the comments!

Other Posts in This Series:

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