Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Withholding for suspense

I'm embarking on a Shirley Jackson read. I like her use of setting-- the sort of unspecified time ("before now") and place ("small town"). She's very specific about detail-- it's a time when they had grocery stores, but the grocer and his wife gathered up the items for you, and it's a place where the winters are hard and the springs cool and fruitful, and where mushrooms (the healthful and the poisonous) grow wild. (Actually, sound like northern Indiana or southern Michigan!). And I'm always up for a good yarn about the insularity and suspicion of a village. (She lived in Bennington, VT, and supposedly The Lottery's village with its geographical features is recognizable as Bennington.)

I'm reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and marvelling at the slow revelation of the central mystery (as in "The Lottery"). It's instructive for writers, I think, to analyze how she does this. I'm well into the book, and still not sure what terrible thing befell the Blackwood family, but I'm not irritated at the crypticness. I'm not inwardly demanding, "Just tell me already!" as I am wont to do with slow reveals. ("She knows what happened! Why hold it back from the reader??") So I'm wondering why this works, why I'm pleasurably gathering clues, why I (who usually early on reads the last page just to make sure that the right person gets punished) am assiduously avoiding spoilers as I gather info about Jackson. What's she doing right here in her withholding?

1. Well, first, she's withholding for a purpose other than withholding. Too many writers, I think, assiduously obey the edict, "Don't reveal backstory!" as if the edict itself is reason enough to withhold. But "tools, not rules!" The withholding of backstory is a tool to the purpose of creating suspense and reader interest, not an end in itself. I have entire confidence that the author here is withholding information because -- when the whole story is read-- it will be clear WHY the backstory is withheld, and it won't be "because I read in a book somewhere that I shouldn't tell backstory." That sort of confidence in the author's choices comes from trust, and the trust comes from recognizing that she knows what she's doing. Establishing that trust-- well, a post for a different day, perhaps.

2. The point of view allows for a lot of withholding. It's first-person, and the narrator is a young woman who is full of anger, resentment, and grudges. She is not an open person, and deception and secrecy are part of her way of interacting. In fact, she does a lot of deliberate if subtle taunting of the villagers, and her alienation makes it plausible that she would be oblivious to what might be consuming the reader-- curiosity. And she is shown irritably fending off the curious if guarded questions of the villagers (who are kind of reader-standins), so fending off the reader's curiosity is another "in-POV" aspect of her narrative.
And first-person, however candid it seems, allows for considerably more secret-keeping and downright lying than third-person, because the "I" narrator presumably has a reason for telling the story, and presumably has a reason for NOT telling it all perfectly straight. "Tell the truth, but tell it slant," as Dickinson put it, and in first-person, the narrator determines just how "slant" you can get before it stops being "the truth".

3. The story starts firmly in the "ordinary world" of the narrator, and it's set up as very ordinary-- a girl living in a small family, in a pretty house surrounded by a pretty garden, going grocery shopping twice a week and withdrawing books from the local library. That ordinariness is lulling, but could verge into boring... so the reader is a bit pleased when a few anomalies early crop up (the library books are five months overdue, the narrator's sister cooks but won't go into the village to shop for food). The ordinary world is established, but so is the mystery.

4. The narrator seems to be perfectly frank (and in a way, she is)-- starting off with an announcement of her name and the admission that she wishes she were a werewolf and is quite acquainted with the Latin name of a poisonous mushroom. "I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amonites phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead." (Now she REALLY knows how to end the first paragraph, doesn't she?) She has no problem sharing all sorts of negative things, like she wishes she could "walk on the dead bodies" of the children who make fun of her, and that she has gotten angry and smashed her mother's favorite milk jug. She reveals a lot about herself, so her withholding one big thing (the secret) actually centralizes it, makes it seem more important and dramatic.

5. Jackson makes it clear that this is an IMPORTANT secret, and it really is. That is, I never had that impatient sense that this was going to end up some stunt or trick, that the big secret was that Constance had not gotten into the college of her choice and that's why she was hiding in the house. Again, the author needs to inspire trust in the reader that she wouldn't go to such lengths to hide something trivial, that the mystery is worth the anticipation. That's a tough thing to pull off, yes, but it helps that the author knew all along that in truth what she was withholding was indeed worth the wait (and also the sort of thing that is withheld in real life).

Let me explain what I mean by "trivial withholds". I was once reading an opening where the heroine was going to meet a man for dinner. She was in a sorority, and as she got dressed and got ready, her sorority sisters kept dropping by to say, "I hear you're going to dinner with Tom! Give him my regards!" and "Say hi to Tom for me!" So her friends knew who Tom was-- no big secret to them. But the author (and narrator) assiduously avoided giving any identifying detail about Tom that would let the reader know who he was. But clearly it was being set up that we were to think that he was a date, a boyfriend, an ex maybe.

In fact, "Tom" was her brother. He knew that, she knew that, the sorority knew that. They all knew he wasn't a romantic partner, and so, in real life, none of them would have given that impression. They wouldn't deliberately avoid using the word "brother," for example, because they wouldn't be trying to give the impression that he was anything else. (Because there's nothing wrong with being her brother, obviously-- if he were her biology professor, her MARRIED biology professor, maybe there'd be a reason for everyone to be cagey. But he's just her brother.) I was annoyed then when -- finally, a chapter later-- it's revealed that, shazaam, Tom was her brother. I don't mind misdirection (I like it), but I do mind useless misdirection, where the only purpose is apparently to misdirect me. Misdirection for the sake of misdirection does not inspire that sort of authorial trust that makes me settle back and enjoy the slow buildup to revelation.

6. There are all sorts of clues. Instead of constant misdirection and blocking and blind alleys, every here and there is a nugget of information, like the rubies scattered here and there in a video game. Mushrooms are mentioned three times in the first chapter. Hmm. Mushrooms, important. Merricat is always nervous about leaving the house, and she's right, as some of the villagers treat her cruelly (especially the children). But some treat her with elaborate casualness, and some treat her with a bit of obsequiousness (the Blackwoods appear to be the richest family in town). The children have a nursery rhyme they chant as she passes, "Oh, Merricat, Merricat, will you take tea? Oh, Constance, please don't poison me!" (Makes me think that this story is based at least in part on that famous true New England murder, you remember: "Lizzie Borden took an axe, gave her father forty whacks.") Uncle Julian is writing his memoir, and keeps asking questions-- "Did your father have a cigar out in the garden that morning?"
We never go very long without a ruby-- no time to get frustrated.

7. There are also hints that there's a deeper mystery. There's a real narrative deepening going on. A clue is revealed (the family has closed off a gate once used by the village) that might suggest another bit of info about the secret (which is something to do with poisoning! Hey, I'm not so dumb!). But then comes the deepening-- the gate was closed off not last year (the apparent time of the poisoning), but years ago, when her mother decided she didn't like people nearby. That is, we grab that ruby, and we might be disappointed to find it isn't a ruby at all (a clue to the poisoning secret), but then we realize it's not a lump of rock or something useless (as a meaningless misdirection might be), but an emerald! (I mean, a clue to some OTHER secret.) This deepens the mystery, because just as we start thinking we know what's going on (Poisoning. The parents.), we are faced with some other questions, like "were the parents crazy?"

8. I hesitate to bring this up, because it's probably not something you can control as a writer, but you might be aware of it. Everyone's probably read "The Lottery," another Jackson story about a small town, and in that, the woman is a victim of the close-minded conformity of the villagers. So of course that's in our heads as we read this other Jackson story about a young woman in a small town full of suspicious people. And that's a clue too, isn't it? Jackson often uses the small town setting to explore conformity, suspicion, narrow-mindedness.
However, what's fun here, is in Castle, I am feeling all kinds of sympathy for the woman who is ostracized and shunned by those mean villagers, just like in "The Lottery." However, something is telling me there's more here... that maybe the villagers, nasty as they are, are right this time. That's another way the mystery is deepened, through the "meta" overlay of reality (Lizzie Borden) and the author's other work.

9. There's action here-- concrete, vivid action. I don't mean guns going off and bodies discovered in the tulip bed, but just things happening. Merricat goes into town, and stops at the coffee shop, and someone sits next to her and says significant things. She leaves and walks past a group of children who sing the nasty nursery rhyme. She gets home and a couple ladies are there to visit. She is angry, and breaks the milk jug.
This is action as John Barnes defines it
: Any irreversible event that changes the course of events of the story. The "change" is really important here. Jackson continually sets up that "ordinary world" and then shows how this event is a change from that. It's a fascinating technique, actually-- Mrs. Clark comes and visits them every week, so no big deal that she is visiting this week. But she brings Mrs. Wright with her! That's a change! (And it sets in motion more revelation.) Notice though that Jackson goes to pain to set up the "usual" (Mrs. Clark) so that the "unusual" takes on greater importance.

10. And there's emotion, but as the revelation reveals, the emotional mystery gets more complex. We learn it wasn't just their parents who were poisoned, but their little brother, and Uncle Julian's wife. And we learn that the father was a cruel and miserly, and that Uncle Julian feared him. And in the "now," we learn that Uncle Julian is writing a book about the poisoning, and is not in fact in denial at all. But his emotion complicates-- he is aware of the great crime, but still loving to his nieces. We are drawn deeper into the mystery of this large, loving, murderous family.

11. In that way, the withholding draws us into the story of this family-- it is the bait. But the prize isn't that revelation of what the secret is, rather the ever-deepening mystery of the family love and desperation. That is, there's a reward for letting the suspense build, for not reading that last page, for not seeking for an answer but rather letting it gather-- the reward is the scarier story within the suspense story. How threatening is love, how dangerous is the family.

Whatever, however you withhold, think of the why. And remember-- what you conceal, you reveal. This is too delicate a tool to use to no purpose. Use it to tantalize and taunt, but also conceal something even more important.



Jami Gold said...

I haven't read this book, but it sounds fascinating to imagine how different it would be if it were written by any other author. You often speak of an author needing to have confidence in their work--they know what they're doing--and I think that really comes into play with a story like this. A lesser author would want to reveal backstory more blatantly out of fear that the reader wouldn't "get" it.

It takes a certain amount of confidence to pull readers along for the ride. Almost like leadership skills.

green_knight said...

I haven't read this book, and it doesn't - storywise - sound like something I'd pick up, but I am fascinated by the subtle skills that keep the reader intrigued even when they - allegedly - know 'what happened'.

Of course, the double narrative is a staple in mystery plots - we get the protagonist moving forward in real time while uncovering or revealing events of the past, with both threads coming to a climax at the end.

At the danger of repeating myself, I am really enjoying these posts, because they're helping me to develop my writing in the direction I want to take it.

Sylvia said...

This is fascinating. I despair of ever being able to wield such control, though.

Edittorrent said...

I know, Sylvia-- it almost is scary, how utterly sure-handed she is. That's authority!

Genella deGrey said...

This sounds like a [directing] job for M. Night Shyamalan.

Edittorrent said...

Genella, apparently there was a film or TV movie made of it. I'll check Netflix.

Lisa Eckstein said...

I love stories where there's a gradual (and artful) reveal of what's going on. This is hard to pull off, and I've often left things unexplained in a story imagining that I was creating intrigue and suspense, while my critique partners were merely confused.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a great example of a book in which the point of view contributes to an effective withholding of information. The first-person narrator is addressing herself to an audience who grew up in the same circumstances she did, so while the reader is actually unsure what's going on in this world, there are all these interesting references to a nonexistent shared experience. I'm curious to see if the upcoming movie manages to do anything with this effect.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle sounds like just my kind of book, and I'm adding it to my list. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this topic.

Phyllis said...

Alicia, I just wanted to say thank you for this post. I got We Always Lived in a Castle and read it today. It was a fascinating read, the novel kept me on edge the whole time.

I particularly loved Merricat's voice, her use of magic, and of course Uncle Julian (favorite quote: A man's head should be his own responsability.)

John H said...

Wow, you made we want to read this book. Very insightful and I wonder whether this will help me with my story.

I have a similar thing in which the hero had a scuffle with his pregnant wife and she fell down the stairs and lost the baby. that she was pregnant is withheld until half way through the story. I'll always think of this example when working on that to try and do it justice.

Edittorrent said...

Lisa, I love Never Let Me Go. What a tone!

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, this is just what I needed! My WIP centers on this idea, but I was worried about frustrating the reader and how/when to reveal.

Edittorrent said...

Phyllis, I liked particularly (as the pet of a cat) that she spoke of her cat as a character. Really, that's the way they are-- more real than the humans around us!