Thursday, June 23, 2011

Don't be an Imagination Dictator

I’m reading this wonderful book right now titled “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin. It’s about Nelson Mandela and how he bitch-slapped white South Africa with kindness and overcame massive odds to become president. And, in a dual narrative, it’s about how the end of Apartheid coincided with one of the greatest rugby world cup championships in history, which took place in…you guessed it…South Africa. You may have heard of the Clint Eastwood movie “Invictus” that’s based on this book. It’s gripping and so preposterously improbable that it all must be true. And it’s beautifully written to boot.

What’s so cool about this work of non-fiction is how frigging literary it is. Some of my favorite non-fiction books—Herodotus’ “The Histories”, Reza Aslan’s “No god But God”—are well told, but they lack a certain cinematic suppleness that renders them, in the end, just not that pretty. But Carlin’s book tiptoes the line between literature and journalism so deftly that he makes you feel like you’re there seeing what happened but also, and this is the important part, he puts you in a position to feel similar feelings as those experienced by the characters. Excuse me, did I say characters? I meant actual people!

Carlin employs a light but resonant touch when describing physical locations and people’s appearances. This is a lesson that can be learned by all of us, whether we write fiction or non-fiction. Here is a good example of what I mean. The book hops back and forth between pre- and post-Apartheid South Africa. In one such flash forward, Mandela has just been release from a long jail sentence and soon after becomes president. And he moves to Houghton:

An inhabitant of Los Angeles would be struck by the similarities between Beverly Hills and Houghton. The whites had looked after themselves well during Mandela’s long absence in jail, and now he felt that he had earned a little of the good life too. He enjoyed Houghton’s quiet stateliness, the leafy airiness of his morning walks, the chats with the white neighbors, whose birthday parties and other ceremonial gatherings he would sometimes attend.

Nothing fancy, right? Very simple wording. But can’t you just see the palm trees blowing in the wind? The crisply-dressed Afrikaaners bidding him good morning from the front porches of their mansions? Notice Carlin didn’t say anything about palm trees or mansion front porches—my imagination added this.

And that’s the real lesson here. Don’t be an imagination dictator. Don’t explain everything down to the minutest detail so the reader can’t fill in some visual blanks on their own. Reading is a give-and-take between reader and author; the adept author gives just enough information to spark the reader’s imagination, and no more.

As a kid I used to love watching behind-the-scenes shows about movies. I remember once watching one where a guy who painted mattes—paintings that allowed special effects to happen in the days before CGI—talked about how, often times, he’d just paint a brushstroke or two to evoke images. He said that once he’d painted cannons in the side of a pirate ship with just two quick strokes each. When the director looked at the painting, he said the cannons looked so real that he felt he could actually look down their barrels. The painter laughed in his recounting the story, because he knew what any great artist knows: you don’t have to paint a schematic drawing of a cannon to make it look real.

Since we only see impressions of things as we go through life, sometimes it’s truer to life to only give your reader an impression of an object instead of describing the object to death. If you dissect an object or person too much, you run the fatal risk of bogging down the action of your plot, and this sucks royally. If you’re a technical writer and you’re writing an instruction booklet, then be my guest and explain away. But if you’re writing fiction or literary nonfiction, just give us an evocative impression of what the character sees and then move on.


  1. Good article. I always struggle in my writing with finding that happy medium where I give enough detail to paint the picture but not so much that the reader doesn't get to create the image on their own. BTW, I love the term "Imagination Dictator". Sounds like maybe those guys would be related to the thought police! :-)

  2. Thanks, Scott. Yeah, I think imagination dictators are the evil stepchildren of the thought police. :) It's seriously hard to strike the right balance. It's much easier said than done!