Over the weekend, I stumbled over a Twitter thread where people shared some of their favorite panels from Gary Larson’s The Far Side.
One panel, titled “Early Experiments in Transportation,” sent me into an absolute fit of laughing. I showed it to Jen, and she laughed just as long and hard.
I found myself studying the piece, trying to figure out why it affected both of us that much. And I realized that Larson tapped into the “let the readers do the work” adage in this panel.
What do I mean by that? As K.M. Weiland explains, “[The writer’s] job is to guide the readers’ imaginations, but it’s their job to put their imagination to work in the first place.”
This Larson panel does exactly that. Larson doesn’t show what happens during an early experiment in transportation. He merely sets up the scene. He gives us the setting, the characters, and the items that will be used to test how transportation might work.
But he doesn’t show us the scene in motion. He drew a static image, a still life. It’s our brains that fill in the motion. We imagine what happens when the two helpers let go of the wheel and it starts rolling. Larson relies on our efforts, our imagination, to make his still life humorous.
When reviewing so many of Larson’s best panels in that Twitter thread, I noticed that the ones that made me smile the biggest and laugh the hardest were the ones that invited me to participate. They were places where Larson gave me the setup, and my brain provided the punchline.
Another example of this is one of my favorites, “Cat Fud.”
Larson doesn’t show the cat in the dryer. Frankly, I think readers would have been shocked and complained about animal cruelty if he had. Instead, he has the dog set the cat up, and readers are left imagining what happens if the cat falls for the dog’s trap. The strip would be equally funny if readers imagined the cat figured out the dog’s nefarious plan and somehow turned the tables on the dog hiding in the corner.
Re-reading these classics from Larson, I’m reminded that I should look for places in my own writing where I can cut back on my descriptions and allow the reader to do some of the work.
I’m sure many writers have heard the story about a romance writer who wrote a fade-to-black sex scene. That is, the writer never gave any details; they only set the scene and then faded out to start a new scene or chapter the morning after. And yet, readers at the book signing insisted to the writer that she’d written the dirtiest sex scene they’d ever read.
Readers come to the page looking to be entertained, but they don’t need writers to hand-feed them every little detail. If writers give readers space in which to use their imaginations, we might find we keep our readers’ attention longer.