I’m going to draw an analogy for you all today. Bear with me.
We spent yesterday creating a logo for the publishing house we’re inventing to publish my book. At first we were going to call it the Ammonite Press because I have that lovely violet ammonite logo, which is a scan of an actual lovely violet ammonite, colorized. Then we found out there already is an Ammonite Press. Not us.
My fall-back choice was La Joya Press, because when I was a child my family lived in rural Ecuador in a 200-year-old hacienda with its name—La Joya—painted in faded, peeling paint across the front above the windows. I loved living in a house with a name. And La Joya means the jewel, which that house was. . .once upon a time. The floors were eucalyptus, the windows were leaded and set deep in foot-thick adobe walls, there was 200-year-old peeling wallpaper on the walls above and below fake chair rails and picture rails, and the ceilings were illustrated. Yes, illustrated. Hand-painted, 200 years earlier. I used to lie in bed in the morning trying to memorize the designs because I was pretty sure my father would forget to photograph them before we moved (which he did). It was like living in the closets of the Sistine Chapel.
The only problem is that the name La Joya lends itself in English-speaking countries to mispronunciation. I lived out my childhood being mistaken for a Nixon. Now I live on a road no one can pronounce, married to a man with an even more unpronounceable name than Mixon. And no one can pronounce my son’s name, either, although it’s not hard. It seems like deliberately choosing an unpronounceable press name might be carrying the whole thing a wee bit too far.
So I looked up another icon of my Ecuadorian childhood, a light cardboard cut-out sign, an advertisement for a festival dated 1899. It’s the head of a young blonde woman in an enormous hat with violet ostrich feathers, holding her hands, clad in soft leather gloves from the elbow, to her face, and resting her chin thoughtfully on one finger. She’s gazing up, as though admiring the decorated ceilings. Her name—in overly-elegant nineteenth century script under her elbows—is La Favorita.
My family found her hanging on the wall of La Joya when we moved in (it was partially furnished), along with a brunette companion whose name I don’t remember. For some reason, my parents were nuts about La Favorita, although not her friend. They moved her to a prominent spot in the dining room and photographed her for posterity. By the time we left two years later, she had become a de facto member of the family, and my mother got the landlord to give her to her. She’s hanging in a frame now in my mother’s living room, 110 years old and still fresh as a girl.
Unfortunately, she’s got far too much detail and shading to work as a tiny little spine logo. We tried shrinking her. My son loved it, but from a distance of two feet she just looked like a grey blob.
So we set to work turning her into a piece of art that would work.
My husband and I sat side-by-side on the couch all day yesterday while he Photoshopped La Favorita into a line drawing. She needed enough big dark elements to be recognizable at a casual glance—even tiny—but she also needed her itsy-bitsy little facial features with their soulful gaze. We blacked in her hat and gloves (although the gloves have wonderful highlighted wrinkles in the soft leather) and exaggerated her eyes and mouth. We erased all of her from chin to gloves and then went back, meticulously re-creating only those lines absolutely necessary to give her definition. She has a lot of ruffles around her face, which looks weird when they disappear. We had to get just enough of them in to remove the weird without competing with her more important elements.
The pièce de résistance turned out to be not even a part of her, but the shadow her cardboard cut-out cast on the wall when she was photographed. It’s only behind one arm (the light came from an angle), but it’s a lovely calligraphic line that thins and thickens as it goes around the curves of her sleeve. We sharpened it up. Then we looked at her other arm, which has no such line. We paused.
We were going to flip the line and use its opposite on the other side.
But then I remembered something about logos, and that is a fascinating fact about small, simple, black-&-white images: what the eye knows should be there it will see even when it’s not there.
So we deliberately left off the other arm.
And this is something all writers must remember: what the reader knows should be there they’ll supply even when it’s not. Not only that, but that simple act of supplying the essential last line is what engages the reader, sucks them in, pins them down, makes them part of your story.
Look at your favorite logos. Your eye doesn’t keep going back to them because it’s found every single spec of information it needs. It goes back because there’s something missing, and your eye knows what it is. Triumph! Over and over and over again, the eye feels the satisfaction of supplying the missing piece. Over and over and over again, there is the sense of completion, the instant of epiphany. That’s exactly right.
Because that’s what stories are—the unique, telling details that create the anchor points of your characters and plots, and everything in between the reader fills in for themself. Focus on those details. Make them as wonderful and vivid and telling as you possibly can. Then sit back and let the reader fill in the rest with their own experience.
Have you ever wondered how the ancients got the constellations out of tiny handfuls of stars?
By reading them.