The Reader as Screenwriter, Producer, Director, Set Designer, Lighting Designer, Casting Director, Costume Designer and Actor (Part I)

(A condensed version of this study appears in my book Narrative Madness, which you can acquire at or on Amazon.)

I know a very talented individual who adapts literary works, produces and directs them, designs staging, lighting and costumes, casts the characters, plays every last one of them and sometimes adds music and special effects. This whirlwind artist accomplishes all this effortlessly, while sitting around the house in underwear and a t-shirt. That genius, my friend, is you!

When a writer walks away from a text, she vanishes. Roland Barthes calls this “The death of the author.” The death of the author, however, is the birth of the reader! So, let me be the first to congratulate you as you step in for the author and rewrite everything, animate the work and perform the text. A piece of writing, like a music score, is a set of mute symbols until it is played. Only then does it come alive.

To demonstrate your astonishing talents, I carried out an informal experiment. My instructions were simple: “As you read the following story, try to hold the image of it in your mind.” Then I offered a very short, emotionally-charged story which lacked specifics, the assumption being that the reader would fill in the details: “A man and woman are eating in a restaurant. They are talking, laughing, even arguing a little. Finally, when the conversation lags, the woman whispers, ‘I love you.’ The man throws his drink in her face and storms out of the restaurant.”

I then asked four basic questions (with focused follow-ups about race, age, clothing, cuisine, et cetera): “What did the man look like? What did the woman look like? What did the restaurant look like? What happened?” I added a control question: “What do you look like and where are you?” I instructed participants to be as specific and detailed as possible in their answers, but told them to write “I didn’t think about it” if they had not visualized a particular element of the story.

I Didn’t Think About It

Respondents took one of two approaches. Some happily filled in details that occurred to them afterwards when reading the prompts. Others were trying not to corrupt the experiment by adding anything they had not pictured during the initial reading.

One participant called the man “a monster 7 feet, 8 inches tall.” I doubt that he thought of this when reading, but this does not disqualify his answer or any others like it. The story does not end with the initial text. We cannot quarantine the questions. They extend the tale, acting on our narrative imaginations in the same manner as the original account. The more time we spend, the more imagination we invest. As in a dream, characters, props and details materialize as we turn our gaze upon them.

As expected, readers took over the story. Respondents answered 91% of the questions, leaving only 9% unanswered. Out of twenty-eight participants, twenty (71%) answered all the major questions. Twelve of these respondents (43%) never expressed any doubts. Eight of them (29%) answered principal questions, but responded “I didn’t think about it” to one, two, three or six prompts. Five (18%) responded “I don’t know” to a main question, and, in one of these cases, a follow-up question. Three (11%) weren’t sure about two big questions, and, in one case, an aspect of another question. One person (4%) gave a non-response to three out of the four of the major questions and an element of another. No one — let me repeat that — nobody had zero answers. That means that everyone had partially animated the tale. Everybody had taken over the story and added to it, in most case prolifically.

Non-responses do not indicate a lack of imagination. Although I generally did not know who was writing, facts about the respondents sometimes made it clear. Of those who wrote “I didn’t think about it” most often, one is a talented character actor and the other is a creative technologist. Neither would say they lack imagination. But sometimes people say that.

I do not believe it! In order to function socially, you must have both verbal and nonverbal narrative skills, a theory of mind (the ability to guess what others are thinking) and empathy (the ability to imagine yourself in another’s shoes).

“I guess I don’t have that kind of imagination,” one participant wrote in answer to the prompt “What was he wearing?” Yet the same person gave the man’s race and approximate age. The respondent also said the restaurant was a “typical American diner” and offered two very specific possibilities, Carrow’s or TGI Fridays, demonstrating an imagination complex enough to sustain concurrent versions.

To the five prompts for “What happened?”, the same respondent wrote: “1) dunno. 2) dunno. 3) alcohol. 4 dunno. 5) dunno . . . you haven’t finished the story.” The participant, notice, did not picture nothing. The man’s drink was definitely alcohol. Even more interesting, the respondent was animating me! He or she said, “you haven’t finished the story.” In other words, the person was complaining that I had not carried out my task as a storyteller because I had failed to provide a resolution to the narrative arc, a form we have come to expect from a lifetime of narrative training. The participant was imagining a void in the story, but felt it was my job, as a writer, to fill it. These frugal answers actually demonstrate several levels of imagination.

My initial reaction was puzzlement, however, because I was not playing the role of a writer, but that of an experimenter. As an experimenter, I had deliberately left the story open. (I understand the complaint, however. I hate it when authors end a story ambiguously. I do not mind participating, as long as storytellers do their part.)

Other stolid readers imagined more than they acknowledge. To “What happened?”, one participant answered, “I don’t know. I thought about it, but am curious but don’t know the answers.” This is not a lack of imagination, but an overabundance of it. This person considered various possibilities (“thought about it”) but could not decide among them. Of the woman, one participant wrote, “Can’t think what she is wearing,”  but added, “she is dressed nice.” Another said, “Didn’t have much of a picture,” but went on to say that she was “someone who would be in a commercial on TV” and was “put together.” One person answered “What happened?” so: “About this part, I have no idea. It was kind of sudden, no?”, then added, “I think the guy is crazy.” Though hesitant to take on the role of the writerly reader, all these participants invested quite a bit of imagination in the story.

The answer that best demonstrates my point was: “I saw no specific details as there were none given. I just saw silhouettes or suggestions.” This response thrilled me (in spite of the hint once again that I had not done my job as a storyteller!) because it shows that the respondent’s mind was not blank. The person saw “silhouettes or suggestions,” which indicates that he or she had designed a shadowy production. The person imagined the scene as distinctly as any other.

Those who just wrote “I didn’t think about it” (without any guesswork) probably pictured more than they admitted. If asked about the woman “Was she one hundred and five years old? Was she a giantess? Was she an Australian aborigine? Was she wearing a crown?”, they probably would have said, “No!” So, the woman was not just any female. With continued questioning, we could narrow the range. Although they may not have been able to describe her exactly, they had a vague idea of who she was and who she was not.

(In the second part of this series on the writerly reader, I will show how differently readers animate a story.)

2 thoughts on “The Reader as Screenwriter, Producer, Director, Set Designer, Lighting Designer, Casting Director, Costume Designer and Actor (Part I)”

  1. Brilliant! And, I would note, you have made every one of your participants feel good about the part they played. 🙂
    Thanks for a fun read this morning. Great way to start my day!

  2. Very interesting article! Trying to add your blog to my Google Reader RSS feed, but can’t see an RSS link anywhere?

    I pictured a blonde woman, curled hair, yellow dress with a blue pattern. Sitting down to a booth, though it’s a classy restaurant. The decade is somewhere from the late 40s to the early 60s. The tablecloth is white. The man was seen from behind. He wears a grey suit and put on a fedora as he left. He had a martini. They flirted and argued in a fun way before he threw the drink in her face. He didn’t want her to ruin what they had. He was still hurting from something old but fresh and ran from being hurt again. She was shocked. The window they sat next to was dark, as was the rest of the retaurant. It was night.

    … Very impressive getting me to come up with all that. I actually pictured it all as I read it, but the act of analysing it really shows how deep the rabbit whole goes…

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