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Reader Templates

In my copious amounts of free time, I’m working on a book about writing. Because as everyone knows, there aren’t enough books on writing already. Hopefully there’s room for one more, anyway.

One of the concepts I talk about in this book, and one I use with many of my clients, is the idea of a “reader template.” Readers come to a story with set ideas in their minds–prebuilt settings and character types–and it’s to the writer’s advantage to make use of these ideas. By this I mean that in setting up a world for the reader, there are certain shortcuts. Consider this example:

London, 1880

Did you see it? If you’re like most readers, that location and date alone will almost certainly evoke a thick fog, cobblestone streets, men in top hats and women in corsets, horse-drawn carriages trotting along, street vendors, street urchins, and any number of other elements that comprise a typical London scene of the time. Here’s another example:

There were two bikers standing outside the bar.

Did you see two men in leather jackets, jeans, and black boots? Beer bellies? Was the bar dark inside? Did one of the bikers have a shaved head? Do they both look tough? Would you expect that they are armed with knives or maybe a pistol? Are there choppers parked outside?  This is what I mean by reader templates. I only noted a bar, and two people standing in front, but saying that they are “bikers” evokes a response from the reader. Readers fill in blanks using whatever information they have at hand. In many cases, photos, TV, films and life experience provide that template.

This is not to suggest that writers should cut corners on descriptions simply because they’ve given a date and place, but rather that in many cases the writer can ease up on unnecessary details, and focus on the details that move the story forward. Writing that “Jerry saw a businessman in a suit and tie” is redundant, in that “businessman” alone is almost certainly going to evoke from the reader an image of the man wearing a suit and tie.

Keep reader templates in mind when writing scenes. Cutting a few corners in descriptions that aren’t needed leaves the writer with more room to put in details unique to the scene, and which will captivate the reader.

Want more? Check out “Reader Templates: Rue Edition”

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

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