I've finally realised something about readers. They're imaginative, clever and they enjoy stories.
I was taking readers' creativity for granted when I wrote descriptions. After compiling character charts and world-building files, I tried to be detailed in creating the setting and portraying the characters. Then I read a book that changed my views on writing.
It wasn't one of the hundreds of non-fiction books I own, it was a story.
Tim Winton's Cloud Street is dubbed a modern classic and an Australian favourite. The book has been on my TBR shelf for over a decade, but I finally made time for it recently (okay I downloaded the audiobook from iTunes instead). What I noticed most about Winton's writing in this novel was the descriptions. Details and facts about appearances were short, but the personalities and moods were clear. Winton masterfully weaves metaphors and imagery like glittery threads through the story.
So soulful are Winton's descriptions that the main setting becomes one of the characters: The house at Cloud Street.
It was a big, sad, two-storey affair in a garden full of fruit trees. ...Here and there weatherboards peeled away from the walls and protruded like lifting scabs, but there was still enough white paint on the place to give it a grand air...
The house mirrors the families' lives and echoes their moods. After one character reacts to the death of a family member, the house is portrayed in a sinister style:
In the library the shadows danced. Oh, how they danced. Can't you still see the evil stink coming through the cracks, ...the swirling rottenness of their glee turning to gas across the rails, the rooftops, the tree crowns of the city?
Here's an example of one of the main characters:
Rose was a slender, brown girl, with dark straight hair, cut hard across her forehead. She was a pretty kid, but not as pretty as her mother. Well, that's what everyone told her. She wasn't vain, but it stuck in her guts, having someone telling you that every day of your life.
In this description, we are given a brief overview of Rose's physical attributes, but it's the line about not being as pretty as her mother, that provides the insight into who Rose is, and how she will be affected by the judgement of others. Winton shares Rose's progress into adulthood, one later description reveals her trying to harden herself against those around her:
She felt like she was made of steel. It was shiny and bitter and it shone all around like starlight.
This book was an experience for me, it was filled with sweetly-damaged characters and experiences combining heartache and hope. What I'll take from it is to allow readers to fill in the blanks and create their own visual images. They don't need to know every character's outfit and hairstyle.
If you'd like to see more, here's a link to a previous post I did on putting the character focus on 'who' they are, rather than 'what' they are.
Never Underestimate Readers - or Cats.