Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Fill in the Blank

Cricket McRae

The other night I indulged in something I rarely do: checking out the special features on a DVD. I’d just watched The Bourne Ultimatum, and though I generally find the behind-the-scenes information strips a lot of the magic out of a movie, I was curious about which scenes had been edited out. It quickly became clear that all the bits they’d removed, though well enough written and acted, over-explained what was going on. They told more than they needed to. Including them would have slowed the pace, but wouldn’t have added much in the way of real information.
Show, Don’t Tell. The old maxim holds even truer for novelists than for screen writers. Readers fill in blanks and make interpretations and judgments, but they also have to add sensory data, including the visual and auditory information inherent in the cinematic experience. The danger of an author telling and not showing is far greater for the simple reason that we’re painting our stories with little black squiggles … and nothing else.

We ask readers to take those squiggles and translate them into whole worlds, people, events, meaning, for heaven’s sake. I mean, that’s crazy, when you think about it. Is it any wonder that sometimes we overdo it, attempting to make it easier for those marks on paper to convey the effect we desire? To communicate our vision complete with subtlety and layers of surprise and emotion?

But a writer’s job isn’t to tell the whole story. For one thing, we can’t, and the more we try, the more we kill something vital between writer and reader. The writer’s job is to show (and sometimes tell) enough of the story for the reader to fill in the rest by himself. Our readers’ imaginations are fabulous and amazing, but perhaps more importantly, inevitable – and that makes their imaginations an essential part of our story process.

When I was in high school I was taken with a passage from Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent:

“A man who tells secrets or stories must think of who is hearing or reading, for a story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudices, some paint it with their own delight. A story must have some points of contact with the reader to make him feel at home with it. Only then can he accept wonder.”

That quote has stayed with me ever since. Story as a synthesis of writer and reader. It’s mysterious, maybe a little unpredictable, and sometime disconcerting.

And so very, very magical.


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Excellent post, Cricket! To the point and well edited. And something we all need to remember. Think I'll go back over the last several chapters of my latest manuscript with your words whispering in my ears.

Joe Moore said...

Great food for thought, Cricket. Thanks for sharing. I've always felt that the story is not on the page but in the reader's mind--a private little movie playing for one person at a time.

paul lamb said...

There is a phenomenon common among some writers that has been called the "Nancy Drew Moment." It is a point in the narrative when the action is stopped so that the writer can give a ridiculous amount of detail about what the character is wearing. Apparently this was pretty common in Nancy Drew stories of a certain era. (I see it in some contemporary writers as well.)

I don't suppose this is actually telling, but it seems like worthless showing. Only rarely does this depth of detail drive the narrative or give useful insights into a character.

I honestly don't think most readers really care what a person is dressed like beyond knowing if they are slobs or snappy or stylish, which can be achieved in a minimum number of words. I think most readers will draw a mental picture of a character regardless of how the author has described him/her, and I think that's about right.

Julia Buckley said...

Great quote, Cricket, and such a true post. And I love the Bourne movies. :)

G.M. Malliet said...

Very timely. I just spent a week "killing my darlings" - those phrases and entire paragraphs that I love but that are getting in the way of the story.

p.s. If you haven't read this, you'll love the last line, I guarantee it:

G.M. Malliet said...

oops, broken link. I'll try again:

It's a story in the most recent New Yorker about a bookstore that keeps reinventing itself.

Anonymous said...

right on the money, cricket. in music it has been referred to as the "space between notes" miles understood it as do the greats in any medium.

Woody Bombay said...

Right on, sister. Your post is both succinct and concise. I eagerly await your next missive.