November 29, 2018

When Vagueness Works

By Chris PeppleWriter-At-Large, Southern Writers Magazine     

Don’t worry…I haven’t gone crazy. Yes, I know that I spend a lot of time reminding writers to give plenty of details about their characters. We do this, so your readers can feel immersed in your story and connected to the people in it. Details bring characters to life.

Here’s the twist for now, though. Sometimes being vague can be powerful. You can write an entire story and leave the details up to the imagination of the reader. It’s true. Your vagueness can open the minds of the readers and allow them to give the characters traits that they most prefer or can relate to.

Honestly, I don’t recommend this often. It’s hard to pull off successfully. Let me give you can example to help you see when vagueness can be a powerful tool in writing. I wrote a short story about 20 years ago and created a woman named Maggie as the main character. In the short story, Maggie faces challenges in her community while trying to protect children in her community. (Spoiler alert: Maggie dies at the end.)

I gave no specific race or age for Maggie, though I do call her an older woman. I don’t give any clues as to where the setting is…no hometown or nationality given for her at all. She prays in the story, but I don’t tell you anything more about her specific faith or denomination. I do build in conversations, so readers know that Maggie is kind, loving, and well-respected in her community. The readers need enough information to see her as good. But that’s all I give them. The readers have to imagine who Maggie is.

Twenty years later, I still get comments about this story. Readers tell me that they are sure Maggie lived during the time of the conflicts in Northern Ireland. Others are sure that Maggie lived through the Civil Rights Movement. Some readers don’t know the original publication date and place Maggie in various cities around the world today. The readers are connecting to Maggie based on their own life experiences or areas of interest. The truth is that Maggie is all of these women. I didn’t create her to be tied to a particular time, race or region. I was vague, so Maggie could transform into someone new with each reader.

Give vagueness a try. It’s definitely not a writing approach that will work for every book or short story, though, so be sure to seek feedback to see if you have been successful.

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