I'm reading Stone's Fall by Iain Pears, an exquisitely talented mystery writer whose first book, An Instance of the Fingerpost, is a near-perfect clinic on first person narratives. This new book is gorgeously written in reverse chronological order similar to the movie Memento, but covering a much broader time span.
But I'm struck over and over again not by the structural pyrotechnics but by the simple way he incorporates missing details that lesser writers might just leave out. Instead, by referencing the words not spoken and the actions left undone, we get a richer, more complex narrative. This is not an author who merely watches scenes unfold in his head and then records where the characters are standing and what they are saying. This is an author who embraces the totality of events from every angle.
Here's the first place I noticed this technique, on the bottom of the opening page. We're at the funeral of a woman so old that the narrator, a friend from decades ago, didn't realize she was still alive until he read her obituary in the morning paper.
It was a fine enough service, I thought, although I was not an expert. The priests took their time, the choir sang prettily, the prayers were said, and it was all over. A short eulogy paid tribute to her tireless, selfless work for the unfortunate but said nothing about her character. The congregation was mainly freshly scrubbed and intense-looking children, who were clipped around the ear by teachers if they made any untoward noise. I looked around to see who would take charge of the next round, but no one seemed to know what to do. Eventually the undertaker took over.
The paragraph goes on to describe the plans to inter the body and the procession of pallbearers. But by that point, the main work of the paragraph has already been accomplished. Pears hasn't once referred to the deceased woman's family or close friends, but we all understand they are not present. It's probably the main point of the paragraph, and it's made so obliquely that an inattentive reader might fail to draw the conclusion.
So how does he do it?
That phrase, but said nothing about her character, jarred me right out of the otherwise mild and pleasantly correct catalog of details of a very old woman's funeral. Instantly I wondered why the eulogy of an old, rich woman known for her charitable works would not reference her character. Normally, we might expect such a eulogy to talk about her kindness, her warm heart, her empathy or her sympathy. That's the key signal: Hey! Wake up! Important things are missing here! Pay attention to what's being left out!
Then we get fidgety children and casually brutal schoolteachers. There's a sense of duty attached to their presence, but no real feelings of mourning. Then the service ends, and right at the point where a family member or other designated spokesperson would talk about the next steps in the process, no one steps forward. But Pears handles it so deftly that but for that earlier key signal, we might not reach the proper conclusion.
A lesser writer might have written something like,
While the choir sang, I looked for familiar faces but found none. Of course, she'd never had children of her own, but what about the rest of her family? I also couldn't find a single representative of her husband's family. Or her second husband's family. No friends. No one even close to her age. No one but the dutiful and the curious and a cluster of children from the charity school she founded.
To be candid, that's not an entirely ineffective technique, even if it lacks Pears's masterful sleight of hand. A narrator who notices what's missing is an engaged and thoughtful narrator, and he's more likely to be interesting than the narrator who merely watches the scene unfold and records,
It was a pretty church with a small altar and vaulted ceilings. The pews were filled with school children from the charity school she'd founded. They fidgeted while the choir sang prettily, and their teachers clipped their ears to make them stand still. The priest gave the eulogy and talked about her many charitable works. It was a fine service, I thought, and at the end of it, the undertaker invited us all to the interment that afternoon.
Do you see how that works? It's a technically smooth paragraph with many of the same physical details as the Pears paragraph. But without the active mind of the narrator noting what's missing, the writing feels flat.
This is a technique Pears uses over an over to great effect. Look at how he focuses on what's missing here:
Not all journalists are editors, not all artists are members of the Academy. John Praxiteles Brock, my fellow lodger, was not then a success; his torment at having to look out every morning at the proof of unattainable glory in the next street was balanced by his desire to rub shoulders with the famous, who might assist him in his career. He would come home occasionally bubbling with excitement and pride: "I said good morning to Sargent this morning!" or "Henry MacAlpine was buying a pint of milk in front of me today!" Alas, it was rare that either said good morning in return. Perhaps his desperation frightened them; perhaps the fact that his father was a sculptor (hence his unfortunate middle name) of retrograde opinions and unpleasant temper put them off; perhaps they felt that youth has to fight on its own. Now he is more successful, Brock gives little encouragement to others, either.
Gorgeous, isn't it? Look at all the ways he uses negative statements and awareness of what's missing to paint a clear picture of this character. Can you spot them all?
A writer's work is as good as her powers of observation, and this includes a sensitivity not just to what is recordable, but to what is missing. Pay attention both when you're reading and observing, and ask yourself, What is being left out? How is it relevant? Because there's more to good storytelling than recording where the characters are standing and the words they speak. Sometimes the most significant details are those the characters leave out.