A Smart Strategy: Let Readers Write Portions of Our Stories

“Radio shows of old … Listeners heard simple sound effects and limited descriptions, then filled in the details in their minds. Suddenly they were no longer sitting in front of a radio—they were there.” —Marie Lamba

image by ClkerFreeVectorImages
image by ClkerFreeVectorImages

Let readers help write our stories? In the September 2015 Writer’s Digest article, “Reader Is My Copilot,” Marie Lamba convinced me that too much description kills a reader’s engagement.

Why? Lamba says readers have the ability and need to co-create to stay engaged.

How? Lamba holds that when writers mention a scene, readers have a set of images most people have in common.


I imagined a hospital. Here’s images, smells, and sounds most people would picture:

  • Large building with patient rooms
  • Specialty areas for surgeries, radiology, and emergencies
  • Nurses stations
  • Gurneys and wheelchairs
  • Antiseptic odor
  • Beeping monitors
  • Adjustable tables and beds
  • Doctors, nurses, and aides

Lamba suggests writers: “Take that information as a given and then trim your description, leaving room for those common images to fully materialize in the reader’s imagination. You can insert some establishing details, and point out something atypical if needed, but otherwise keep things lean. Now, suddenly, the reader finds himself helping to form the scene.”

This made sense. Instead of being told what I already picture about a hospital, I can get on with story. And, I’ll probably notice “establishing” and “atypical” details.

Lamba suggests that letting readers use what they already know about feelings works similarly. Writers should never tell readers the emotions characters feel. Giving “the tone of her voice, her gestures and expressions, and her reactions” will trigger the reader’s “vast emotional vocabulary” to interpret a character’s feelings. To me, Lamba confirms the show-don’t-tell principle here.

image by OpenClipartVectors
image by OpenClipartVectors

Here’s an example from the heroine’s point of view in my novel, Calculated Risk. Suppose I wrote:

Fannie and Fran seemed upset that Tony always made them partners in Ping-Pong. Quiet twin Fran seemed overly miffed.


Here’s how I wrote it:


Fannie passed Fran a paddle. “Why do Fran and I always have to be partners?”

“Because apart, you’re klutzes,” Tony said, “but together you manage to keep the ball on the table more often than not.”

“Ha, ha,” Fannie said.

Fran whacked Tony’s arm with a paddle, and he yelped.

Lesson to remember: Don’t cross the quiet twin.

Finally, Lamba applies her theory to a character’s thoughts once the reader has gotten to know the characters. She suggests writers then avoid overstating thoughts and plans, because readers have acquired “insider knowledge” they’ll use to get inside the character’s mind.

image by Olichel
image by Olichel

Example (mine): A reader has spent several chapters with two best friends. She knows one’s a worrier and the other’s a true friend. The writer might use this conversation that leaves out the point of view character’s thoughts, to engage the reader to fill in both characters’ thoughts:


“What’s going on with you and Josh?”


“You know how much I like—”

“I told you, nothing.”

“Then why did you—?”

“We’ve traveled too much road together for you to go there.”

“So, I have to trust you?”

“Yes. Then you won’t ruin the best day of your life.”

Allow readers to use what they know to engage them in your stories. Click to tweet.

How do you feel about limiting details in description and character’s thoughts?

24 Traits to Show How Your Characters Think

“People generally agree that each individual is a unique blend of traits that serve to satisfy basic wants and needs according to one’s moral code.” — Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi

by Famend
by Famend

Let’s have fun.

I have Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s writer’s resource, The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes. I chose 24 character traits from their list and wrote thoughts the characters with these traits might think.

For each set below, can you match the thoughts of these characters at a party to their traits? My Answers are in the comments.

Match the Thought to the Character Trait

by Openclipartvectors
by Openclipartvectors

 Set 1 






Jerry’s drinking too much. I’ll ask him to take a look at my car’s starter problem. Get him away from the party.




I wish Erin wouldn’t praise me for how much I helped her with the party. Lots of people helped.




I wish John would stop holding the bungee rope or instructing me. I know how to gear up.




Man, it’s crowded. Maybe we can leave early. Oh, oh. Here comes chatty Pam. Time to visit the restroom.




Best make sure guests know exactly what they’re supposed to do in Fictionary. Is that lint on my skirt?




Why is Cassie upset? I’m sure John danced with Candy just to be polite.




Forget the chitchat. Let’s see how many more prizes we can win than Anthony.




Anthony butted in line. Oh well, let him. I’m in no rush.




by bungeeinternational10
by bungeeinternational10

Set 2






Jill has goosebumps. I’ll take her sweater to her. And give her my cherry pie recipe. Her nieces will love it.




I’ll collect cups on the way to the kitchen and store the leftovers in the containers I brought with me.




I must tell Erin she reimbursed me too much for the shrimp.




Great! They have bungee jumping. I’ve never done that before. Let’s do it.




I’ll sing my Fictionary definition. And I’ll add some cha-cha-cha to that dance as boring as a waltz.




We’re here! There’s Jill from my painting class. I want to talk to Cass. Got my ballet flats on. Let’s all dance.




I bet if I ask, Erin will let us sit at the head of the table.




Whichever event Pam wants to do is OK by me.



by EVA8-8008
by EVA8-800

 Set 3






Meatballs would’ve done as well as the shrimp. No wonder Erin and Ralph are in debt.




If Candy comes over, I’ll stay courteous but neutral. I have to fire her, but I’ll do it tactfully on Monday.




Look. Each person takes one minute in the food line. If we play Fictionary for an hour, we can avoid the line.




Who’s that with Lisa? I don’t recall inviting him. Lisa is vulnerable. I’d better join them.




When Tim moves to the food, I’ll happen to cross his path and ask his advice on IRAs. I’ll touch my lips.




Beth wore holey jeans to a party? And why’d Tom try to recruit my son? Upholstery is our family business.




Jerry should live somewhere else if he doesn’t like how things are done in this country.




Let me help Pam with her coat. Great dress Sylvia’s wearing. I’ll tell her. Mark could use one of my jokes.



Thoughts that characters with specific traits would think. Click to tweet.

What might a loyal character think at the party?