The Journal: Readers Like to Fill-in the Blanks (Uh, No)

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* PQ Topic: Readers Like to Fill-in the Blanks
* This morning I left a comment
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

PQ Topic: Readers Like to Fill-in the Blanks

Actually this isn’t a Persistent Question so much as a Persistent Misbelief. A myth. Something even writers sometimes pass along to other writers. And it’s male bovine excrement.

My immediate response to “Readers like to fill in the blanks” is a pair of arched eyebrows, a head shaking slightly side to side, and “So?”

As a writer, do you really care what some faceless, nameless reader wants other than what you owe them for the money, which is a good story?

I don’t.

Besides, in the first place, umm, wrong. Readers do NOT like to fill in the blanks. Even if they think they do. If they did, then it would follow that the “perfect” novel would be one of those blank journals for which you pay like thirty bucks at your local Barnes & Noble.

Then the reader could open to Page 1 and start filling in the blanks. Exaggeration? Not really.

The truth is, people who read, just like people who watch films and listen to music, want to be entertained. THAT is what they like.

I’ll even go out on a limb and say they want to be manipulated.

They want to be transported to your fictional world, and while they’re in it, they want to believe it’s real. If your POV character sneezes, they want to feel the mist strike his palm. They want to notice the tiny bit of mucus draped for a second over his bottom lip, even if the other characters don’t notice it.

They want to see what your POV character sees, hear what he hears, smell what he smells and so on. They want to experience his emotional ups and downs.

And they want to know what the POV character and the other characters in the book look like. Even the so-called minor characters and those who only stop by to foreshadow something else. (I say “so-called” because you never know what level of prominence a “minor” character will achieve later in the book or series.) The reader wants you to put a picture of the characters in their head.

And no, they don’t want to wait until sometime later in the story to get that picture. Or rather YOU don’t want to make the reader wait.

Why? Because if you don’t provide at least a partial description of your character the first time the reader meets him, the reader WILL start filling in the blanks. The reader will get an image in his head of his neighbor or the clerk down at the cleaner’s or the convenience store or her former lover or her boss or a subordinate.

And then later, when you DO finally get around to providing a description of the character that YOU see in YOUR head as you’re writing, the reader will be conflicted. And if your story isn’t otherwise extremely strong, he might put your book down and go find something else to do.

As the editor of the author who wrote the article told her, “[T]here should be something here to help the reader connect with [the character] right away.”

To that, I can only say, “Duh.”

The story, including the setting, the characters, and the situation is in YOUR head. Your job as a writer is to transfer all of that—all of it—to the reader’s head. Again, the reader didn’t buy your book to do the work of filling in the details himself. He bought your book to be entertained, period.

And all of this goes to another of my favorite short topics about writing: Take Your Time. I’ve talked about that here before, but at the risk of running a little long, here’s a bit more:

I never recommend rewriting, but if you have to go over a complex scene two or three or four times to be sure you included everything the POV character is giving you, do it.

I do that almost every day, and I still write around 1000 words per hour. It isn’t rewriting and it isn’t revision. It’s making sure you haven’t omitted something the characters want included. And in that, it’s making sure the story flows and is complete.

Take the time to convey to the reader on paper what’s in your mind: the characters’ appearance, the setting, and the scene as it unfolds.

And for goodness’ sake, if you’re one of those writers whose characters are talking in the middle of a second-floor parlor and suddenly BLAM! they’re outside on the balcony, hey, slow down. Go back and write a little more so the readers SEES them moving from the room to the balcony. As I’ve written here before, you cannot add “too much” description from the POV character’s point of view.

Yes, I know, some say every bit of description should be “germane to the story.” But the thing is, when you’re describing a scene, you don’t know what might be germane two or three chapters down the line. The best rule of thumb is “If the POV character notices (sees, hears, smells, thinks, remembers, etc.) it, then you should put it on the page. Don’t stifle your characters. They know what they’re doing. After all, it’s their story.

Back to the parlor-to-balcony move, at least have one character say something like, “Hey, it’s a beautiful day and the roses are in bloom. What say we take this discussion out on the balcony?”

And then you STILL have to let the reader see them physically open the curtains and the sliding glass door (or whatever) and step out onto the balcony.

Or if you want, you can end the chapter or scene with the bit of dialogue above and then start the next chapter or scene (after a divider) out on the balcony, where first you will ground the reader with what the POV character sees, hears, smells, etc.

My point is, don’t have them just suddenly appear someplace where they weren’t before without having crossed the intervening space.

Because chances are, your characters are not quarks.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little about writing sales copy (descriptions) so your books will sell or sell better.

This morning I left a comment over on TKZ in response to yet another question about the #$%^&* pandemic and how it’s affecting readers and writers:

I must be the luckiest guy on Earth. I just write what the characters give me.

In the past two months alone I’ve been from a generation ship in the 24th century to a habitable planet, met an alien who enabled a time jump, and watched as colonists established a community a billion billion miles away from this silly little rock with its infestation [of humans].

Back on Earth, I’ve watched a young western marshal make the fateful decision to step through a time portal and learn things most humans don’t know, and I’ve joined an old friend, a Texas Ranger, riding wild on a good horse in a just cause.

Of course, in reality I’m a lesser player—a Recorder, really—living vicariously. I race through the story with the characters, try to keep up, and record the story that they, not I, are living. It’s a great gig. I’m happy they invited me along, and not so much as a sneeze in sight unless it was caused by dust wafting up from the trail.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Making Better Magic Systems, Lesson 4” at

See “U.S. Copyright Basics for Authors” at

See “Doing a Live Chat” at Don’t miss this.

See “Reader Friday: Did Your #Reading Habits Change?” at Are humans really so maleable?

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1300 words

Writing of Wes Crowley (novel, tentative title)

Day 1…… 3089 words. Total words to date…… 3089
Day 2…… 3871 words. Total words to date…… 6960
Day 3…… 5202 words. Total words to date…… 12162
Day 4…… 2900 words. Total words to date…… 15062
Day 5…… 2530 words. Total words to date…… 17592

Total fiction words for May……… 39254
Total fiction words for the year………… 410533
Total nonfiction words for May… 10950
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 95810
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 506343

Calendar Year 2021 Novels to Date…………………… 8
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… 1
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 3
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 61
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.