“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won't contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you.”
Limitations abound when you're creating. In film, you can do a lot with sound and visuals but can't directly present smells, tastes and thoughts unless you resort to some rather cheesy dialogue or worse, voiceover. In writing, you can waste ten thousand words trying to describe exactly what something looks like, or what a voice sounds like. In both mediums, you've only got a limited amount of space to fill in the details.
That's the first problem.
Then there's the problem of making it all work for the audience. Audiences, after all, are made up of individuals, and the problem with individuals is that they're unique. What scares you into never needing a laxative ever again can make the person next to you bored enough to start seeking interesting hangnails to work on. What impresses you is what makes the next person scoff. Humor is notoriously hard to tailor to all tastes. With all that in the way, you'd think there's no possible way for storytelling to work.
It works for many reasons, but one of the most powerful tools we have is the power of suggestion.
Things left to the imagination are a lot more interesting than things that leave nothing to the imagination. If that weren't true, lingerie wouldn't work. Neither would commercials. People are really good at filling in the blanks if the stuff creating the blank is suggestive enough. You can use that to your distinct advantage.
Let's have an example from Terry Pratchett, whose books deserve immortality. In Masquerade, Nanny Ogg writes a cookbook called The Joye of Snacks. It's full of delicious recipes that are most assuredly meant to be the food of love. Mr. Pratchett could have gone into detail on what was in those recipes and exactly what they do, but he gets much better results by merely hinting around at it.
In this scene, Mr. Goatberger has asked his chief printer Mr. Cropper to come into his office and read Nanny's manuscript:
Mr. Cropper sat down with bad grace and glanced at the first page.
Then he turned to the second page.
After a while he opened the desk drawer and pulled out a ruler, which he looked at thoughtfully.
"You've just read about Bananana Soup Surprise?" said Goatberger.
"You wait till you get to Spotted Dick."
"Well, my old granny used to make Spotted Dick-"
"Not to this recipe," said Goatberger, with absolute certainty.
Later, we find out more about Bananana Soup Surprise, but not much more. We learn that Granny Weatherwax, Nanny's friend and the best witch in the Ramtops, doesn't believe the Bananana Soup Surprise, which along with the ruler hints delightfully at what the surprise might be. And then there's this final exchange before the whole thing is laid to rest:
"Did you try it?" said Nanny.
"Mr. Cropper the head printer did, yes."
"Was he surprised?"
"Not half as surprised as Mrs. Cropper."
"It can take people like that," said Nanny. "I think perhaps I overdo the nutmeg."
Terry Pratchett could have given us the recipe. He could have given us a scene with Mr. and Mrs. Cropper finding out exactly how surprising Bananana Soup Surprise is. But instead, we're left with a few very suggestive suggestions, and our imaginations get to play. Those of us with a more delicate disposition are left mercifully with a nice ambiguity. In the end, it's far more effective than knowing the exact details, and takes up a lot less space.
There are ways of suggesting aside from being double-entendre suggestive, mind. This is not a technique limited to scenes about sex. Just like a few pebbles sliding down a steep hillside suggest a much larger problem to come, you can use little details and throwaway lines to hint at much larger things. I'm sure you've all had the experience of re-reading a book that turns out to have said a lot less than you remember. There's a scene missing that you were sure was there, or a lot less said about a character than you recall. If you look closely, you'll notice suggestive little details that let your imagination build whole worlds around them. They made the book a lot larger than its word count allowed.
For instance, let's say you want to show that there's a whole huge world out there impacting the little world of your story. You can't walk away from the narrow focus of your plot and characters to go exploring in it. We're in the business of writing stories, not travelogues. But you can suggest that world's out there by dropping in a few hints here and there:
He looked at their faces, and saw in all of them the same thought: We're supposed to trust the guy who got us all locked up in that prison in Prague back when we were seniors. He's the reason Smitty's cleaning Port-A-Potties and why none of the rest of us will ever climb a corporate ladder anywhere, and he's going to get us out of this? Too bad that incident with the secret police and the cheap phrasebook hadn't happened in Vegas. What happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas....
There's no need to flash back to show exactly what happened. You can suggest it by the things people bring up at inconvenient moments as the story progresses. Don't underestimate the power of "Yeah, but what about what happened in London that one time? You know, that thing we're never supposed to mention ever again?"
Throw in a few slips of the tongue, and you can let the reader build a full scene from them. Choose the details right, place them just so, and you'll end up with plenty of readers who have filled in the blanks so well that not only can they give you a pretty good sketch of what happened off camera, but probably imagine it better than you ever did.
The power of suggestion is especially powerful when you need to present extremely subjective things, like fear and beauty. There are times when direct description won't get the job done. That's when you have to take the indirect route.
I often have to take it with Sha'daal. We're talking a bloke in a gray cloak, here. Direct description isn't going to show the terror he creates. Having him walk on stage and show off his bad ass certainly won't help the mystique. When you have a big, big meanie, trotting him out to do evil things every tenth page is going to do nothing but numb the reader. But by showing a few of the evil things he does, and then by showing how people react to him, I can (hopefully) create a total image of a terrifying being. I can suggest to readers that, despite mild appearances, this is the worst thing you can imagine:
That sinuous whisper infiltrated every corner of the conference room. It didn't matter that this was a poor-quality transmission filled with interference, fading in and out as Idronisec's implant drained the last of his bioenergy. It triggered an immediate fight-or-flight response, raised the hair on Ray's body, sent his heart into overdrive and started a cascade of hormones and chemicals meant to keep the animal alive in the face of imminent death. He controlled it only because he had so many long years of experience holding his ground. He had to condition his warriors before they could do the same. Even Chretien, normally fearless, had panicked the first time. Everyone did.
Suggestion works very well when everyone's involved. Want to suggest that someone's the smartest person in the world but don't know how to show it directly? Show all the other characters treating that one as a genius. Want to suggest that this is the most beautiful woman alive, but don't want to do an inventory of her attributes? Let other characters do it for you just by the way they feel about her. It's amazing what you can accomplish with a simple "Everyone says so."
Watch out for these tricks the next time you're reading a really good novel. You'll find a thousand ways the author suggested things were so without ever showing you directly. Suggest a few things, let your readers fill in some blanks, and you'll have a novel that says much more than its words ever did.