What the writer pictures isn’t always what the reader sees

Stephen King says: Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

I agree that it’s good to leave something to the reader’s imagination. In The Broken Shore, when Peter Temple writes: She left, tried to slam the door but it wasn’t that kind of door, I don’t think we need ten flowery lines of detail to know what kind of door it was. However, specific details are needed if it’s important to the story for the reader to get it right.

I recieved feedback recently that a scene of my writing was confusing because there were two guys in flannel shirts at the ‘dead celebrities party’. What? I must have made a mistake (copied instead of cut before pasting). I reread what I’d written and, no, only the guy dressed as Jeff Buckley was wearing a flannel shirt (described, as it is important for the reader to get the right picture of this character). ‘Kurt Cobain’ was also at the party, but I gave no description of him. I left it to the reader – obviously, I thought, he’d be wearing that stripy Teen Spirit sweater – because it didn’t matter as he is a minor character in this scene. The confusion came from my reader picturing ‘Kurt’ also in a flannel shirt. Two guys in flannel shirts = confusing.

I did a quick survey of ten people to see what they imagined somebody would wear as a Kurt Cobain costume to a dead celebrities party. I’m still not sure if I should rewrite the scene to include a wardrobe description of a minor character, but the survey answers were interesting (only one said a flannel shirt):

  • Blue-and-white flannel or green miller shirt over an iconic t-shirt (maybe Kiss or Wal-mart) or blue-and-white striped long-sleeved t-shirt .
  • A cardy.
  • Ripped jeans with a patch or two, black low-cut sneakers with a white toe, like Converse.
  • Messy, grungy, blond hair, and green stripy t-shirt and jeans.
  • Dyed blond, bestubbled goatee; black (navy?)-and-white horizontal, striped long sleeve t-shirt and blue jeans; white, thick-rimmed ovoid sunnies.
  • A striped jumper.
  • A woman’s dress, which he wore in the clip for In Bloom. Obviously the hair is important.
  • Black, tight t-shirt and stonewash jeans.
  • Leather jacket, jeans, bare feet, no shirt.
  • A beanie.

If the reader does not conjure exactly what the writer intended, does it matter (unless it’s important for the scene/story)? Does it matter what the guy dressed as Kurt Cobain wore to the dead celebrities party (as long as it wasn’t a flannel shirt)? Even if the reader has him sans shirt and donning a beanie!

Kurt Cobain Teen Spirit sweaterKurt Cobain black jacketKurt Cobain headbangers ball gown


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