Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Words Not Spoken, The Steps Not Taken

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.



Leona said...

As usual, this is an incredible post. In fact, I had a question I wanted to post. It has been entirely forgotten in the wake of your blog. I feel struck dumb by a magnificent bolt of lightening.

Hopefully I'll remember it later. :)

Wes said...

"....but said nothing about her character....." The line is very powerful. It raises many plausible reasons: she outlived people who knew her character, possibly her character was not laudable and her charity work was compensation, etc. The technique is very effective. It shows a writer going the extra mile, possibly the extra five miles. It seems like hard work. I'm mentally going thru my MS looking for places to use it.

Wes said...

The passages seem more like literary fiction than mystery.

Jami Gold said...


Thank you for this post. My question is - how can a writer tell when they've put the "right amount" of information in? Since I know the whole story, it's hard for me to know if I'm including enough information for the reader to draw conclusions. I want my story to have to make the reader think things through and not just spoon-feed it to them, but how do you find that happy medium?

I feel like I've been going back and forth on a teeter-totter with this issue in my WIP. Take for, example, facial expressions. In real life, you can't know why someone makes the facial expressions that they do, so I often try not to include an explanation. I'll state that the POV character notices someone's eyes narrowing, but I don't say "in anger" or "in confusion", etc. But feedback readers have told me to add more to that to explain why the other character is doing something. To me, that seems out-of-POV and spells things out too much. Is my approach right, wrong, or just confusing? :)

I know you're going to tell me that to have that deft balance of revealing/concealing, it takes a skill or talent or experience or something that I just don't have yet, but any pointers would be helpful. :)

Jami G.

Livia Blackburne said...

This is an incredibily insightful post. I'm going to recommend it to my blog readers. Thank you.

Edittorrent said...

Jami, there's a book called "Creating Character Emotion" that might be worth a few hours of your reading time. The author is Ann Hood. She examines the ways different authors have portrayed different emotions using relevant, unique detail.

In the example you cite -- narrowed eyes -- the detail probably is neither unique enough nor relevant to the emotion you're trying to convey. It's familiar shorthand for many readers, but it might not be enough to engage their emotions. Either replace it with something more character-specific, or back it up with additional layers of action and description.

I hope that helps.

Wes, it might properly be categorized as a literary mystery. It was shelved with the genre mysteries in my Borders. Not with the genfic/lit stuff.


Jami Gold said...

Thanks Teresa, I'll add that book to my list to check out.

Yes, I was giving a simplistic example, but the real question is how do you know when you're on that perfect point between confusing and spoon-feeding? Not just about character emotions/reactions, but about theme and other things that are supposed to be less spelled out? I know, that's an impossible question to answer. :) But I just struggle with this issue so much...

Jami G.

Adrian said...

1. I guess I'm an inattentive reader, because I missed it.

2. If I could write like that--carefully dancing around what's not there--I'd imagine my readers saying things like "that's not realistic; where's her family?"

3. My favorite part of the first sample was "undertaker took over". I laughed out loud.

4. I've read the Ann Hood book, and, honestly, I got nothing out of it.

John said...

This post scares me for many reasons:

1) I didn't really get what was missing
2) I didn't understand why that was important.

The second 'lame, but correct' version felt just as good to me. I couldn't see the point of the 'good, but veiled' version. In fact as a reader in reading that I'll miss such things. Then what is the point in putting them in?

So it this something I should strive for in my own writing? by your words i'm clearly an ordinary writer. I'm not sure if I can improve my writing to this level if I can't even see it as a reader. Thats the scary bit.

Riley Murphy said...

I like the rhythm. In the first example - The priests, the choir, the prayers. Reading this small bit - I noticed a number of things. First there were priests (not just a priest) and too the narrator was comfortable with the casual clipping around the ears - so I immediately concluded that the woman who was dead was someone closely affiliated with a religious orphanage where the narrator either grew up, or these were things he expected to find as he attended her funeral - the children/their treatment/and the dead woman seem to be connected more intimately to the narrator because of the casual acceptance of the corporal punishment. Probably a foreshadowing of the woman's life - *shrug* maybe tragic? (could be totally wrong because I haven't read this - just my .02)

For the rhythm? Later in the other example: 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.
I find this very informative - almost too informative. I did have the benefit of reading your comments where you said this was a mystery - so I figure that the narrator is reporting facts - he's not investigating them, per se, because I think he's already done that as he seems comfortable drawing conclusions and furnishing plausible reasons for what he already knew to be true - with all those perhaps’.

Edittorrent said...

John, I bet if you read the whole passage you would "feel" it, even if you couldn't put it into words-- the sadness, the loneliness, the strangeness of it.

I do think that there's a level some writers get to because they so utterly inhabit the world and the character-- that's a level above most fiction. And most fiction is perfectly serviceable, the narration getting the job done of telling the events and revealing the character. But DEEPENING the character-- well, that might take that special ability.

I'm not sure that it makes a book more sellable (in fact, it probably gets in the way of an easy sale), but I think it's wonderful to point out when some writer has ascended to a new level. This might be the only recognition of the exceptional achievement. :)

But Theresa is, I know from experience, an amazingly sensitive reader, and Extremely Good Writers like Pears deserve a reader like Theresa, who can see the special little touch of genius!

Adrian said...

What is "clipping their ears"? I can't find a definition that fits on several online dictionaries I checked. That through me out of the passage.

Leona said...

Clipping their ears is an old fashioned term. Have you ever heard the term "box your ears"? It runs along those lines. We don't do it much in the US as it's outmoded.


Edittorrent said...

Adrian, I bet you didn't go to parochial school. :) The nuns were always clipping our ears at St. Aidan's! Whenever my mother waxes nostalgic for the discipline of the Catholic schools, I tell her all the sisters would now be arrested for child abuse. (G)


Anonymous said...

My editor would have called attention to all the "rounds" and "arounds" in that first passage:

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,