Secret Writing Tool Keeps Audience Brains Active

Authors have a secret writing tool that keeps audience brains active while reading their stories. When an author shows us something that we can’t see nor directly stated, or when “stories tell us something without appearing to tell us readers that thought…that’s writing with invisible ink.  Invisible ink keeps the audience’s brain active.” ~Ursula LeGuin, Steering the Craft, p97

What are invisibles?

It might be easier to give an example: 

“…listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain, the flowers in the jar shift, one fiber in the wicker armchair creeks, though no one sits there.”  

~Usula LeGuin, Steering the Craft, p104 – 105

Air movement is described indirectly. Air movement is invisible, yet, in the line above air is an active character in the writing.

Four Secret Invisibles

1-  Authors describe the effects of movement on an indirect object, like the air movement in a room and how it affects the curtains, the flowers, the wicker chair and uses sensory details to add another layer to the passage.

2- Authors use the word NO.  An example of this type is found in the book IMAGE GRAMMAR on page 108.

“There was no activity on the ground. No televisions blaring from open windows, no children riding bikes, no dogs being rude on the lawn. Not the sort of place neighbors would know neighbors.”

The repeated use of the word no creates a vast emptiness by describing what is not found in this setting.

3- Authors omit a subject. Author Heidi Bine-Stock’s gives examples from the picture book OWEN by Kevin Henkes:

“The meddling neighbor Mrs. Tweezers has a signature way of speaking throughout the story:

“Can’t be a baby forever,” said Mrs. Tweezers. 

“Can’t bring a blanket to school,” said Mrs. Tweezers. 

~How to Write a Children’s Picture Book Volume III, p57

Mrs. Tweezers omits the subject in both sentences when she speaks. Mrs. Tweezer’s invisible message is that Owen (and all children in general) can’t be a baby forever and can’t bring bring a blanket to school.

Also in her own way, omitting the subject of her dialogue captures the authentic speech patterns of the character.

4- Authors use number (which have a language of their own) to send secret messages to the reader:

One means unity, single-mindedness and absolute truth.  [ex. I do. True. Read my lips. God is love. Here’s Johnny.]

Two means balanced, direct, compares/contrasts, divides the world yet reader takes in the two items collectively. [ex. Tom and Jerry. Ham and Eggs. The girl is smart and sweet.]

Three signifies well-rounded, completeness, satisfaction, a sense of whole without breaking the circle. This would include lists an inventory of items, compiling things and expanding things. You’ve heard of the Rule of 3? [ex. Beginning, middle, and end. Moe, Larry and Curly. Faith, hope and love.]

Four and more provides details in a list-like fashion, guides the reader’s imagination, may lead to a feeling of infinity…

~excerpts from Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark p98-101

Author Cynthia Leitich Smith uses this element of 4+ items in her book titled INDIAN SHOES on page 2, when Grandpa Halfmoon and his grandson enter an antique store. Ray, the grandson, looks around the store:

“The shop brimmed with treasures: an autographed baseball…a Chinese Lantern…ostrich feathers…a basket of antique buttons on a pedestal…a tabletop held by a real elephant leg…A moose head mounted high on the wall.”

By creating these lists of four or more items, the reader feels like there’s a camera moving around the room as Ray is moves around inside the antique shop. The list and use of ellipses leads the reader to actively look around at the items that go on and on and on…

Other Examples

Linda Sue Park wrote the novel A LONG WALK TO WATER and used invisibles. In my classroom, we’d stop on page 40 where it said, “Marial was gone-“ and we wondered what happened. The author didn’t describe exactly what happened. We had to go back to re-read page 37 and then move forward. I’d guide my students through the page, discussing paragraphs where little hints occurred. Dropping clues for the reader set up the mysterious invisible event so the reader’s mind was able to fill in what was missing – the event that happened to Marial. Readers must actively think while reading so their brains can fill in the gap. By going back and re-reading together my students figured out how Marial “was gone.”

Linda Sue wrote at the top of page 37.:

“The group continued to walk through the land of Atout every day they saw lions, usually resting in the shade of small trees. Once in the distance, they saw a lion chasing a topi. The topi escaped, but along the path, Salva saw the bones of prey that had not been so fortunate.”

And then further down the page, page 37 to 38: 

“Salva took two steps off the path and fell asleep almost before he laid down. He did not wake until he felt uncle’s hand, shaking his shoulder. As he opened his eyes. He heard wailing. Someone was crying. Salva blinked away the sleepiness and looked at Uncle, whose face was very solemn. 

I’m sorry Salva,” Uncle said quietly, “Your friend…” 

Marial? Salva looked around. He should be somewhere nearby…I don’t remember if he slept near me – I was so tired – Perhaps he was his gone to find something to eat- Uncle stroked Salva’s head as if you were a baby. “I am sorry,” he said again.

A cold fist seemed to grip Salva’s heart.”

Can you fill in the gap? What happened to his friend Marial? Linda Sue never states that he is taken by a lion, but readers can figure out the invisible event.

Linda Sue Park also used a similar technique (dropping hints in the setting) in her book titled PRAIRIE LOTUS on page 2:

“Sky’s clearing,” he said. “Maybe it’ll be easier to scare up a rabbit or something.” He went off with his gun on his arm, his long-legged strides covering ground quickly. 

Hanna watched him until he vanished behind a low rise. The endless prairie looked flat at first glance, but the land was never completely level. Rain had rinsed the gray and beige plains, leaving behind a translucence of green that was growing denser every day” 

Later on, she writes what happens on page 5:

“She lifted the three-legged cast-iron spider from its hook…Spider in hand, she jumped to the ground, took a few steps, and stopped in mid-stride. A group of Indians stood in a loose semicircle between the wagon and the fire. 

Hannah had seen Indians from the wagon several times, but always at a distance. At such moments, Papa seemed watchful, but not particularly worried.”

Linda Sue plants clues when you’re not really paying attention, kind of like a magician does with his magic tricks. Yet, Linda Sue explains enough so the reader’s mind can fill in the gaps. In PRAIRIE LOTUS, she doesn’t explain how all of a sudden, on the wide open prairie, people seem to appear out of nowhere. When you go back and re-read, the evidence is there, just enough so an active reader’s mind can infer what happened. These are great examples of invisibles.

Authors increase their own writing voice by using specific word choice and sentences. Word choice includes the use the tool Invisibles, and as authors, you can add to your Voice Toolbox when studying this tool and practicing the use of invisibles in your writing.

Best wishes expanding an element of style as a writer!


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Related Links

Post Choose to Improve Your Writing Voice

Author/Editor Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Website

Author Linda Sue Park’s Website



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