Sunday, September 25, 2011

Meaning What You Don't Say

!!! Spoilers ahead for the following: Downton Abbey, Intuition, People of the Book.  

On of my favorite authors, Jennifer Crusie, has a great essay on what television taught her about writing romance (check it out here), and one of her points is that in television, characters often don't say quite what they mean (Lesson #4: Mean What You Don't Say).  I’ve been thinking about this lately while watching Downton Abbey (streaming on Netflix!) and appreciating that famous British reticence as displayed by early twentieth century aristocracy.  At times, in fact, they’re almost too reticent.  When Matthew Crawley proposed to Mary, I had to think back:  When exactly did they get to that point?  The clues are so subtle, it was easy for a coarse American to miss them.  All the same, the lack of overt sentiment in the show makes every action carry more weight.  Mary's decision to take a jump while hunting with the alluring Mr. Pamuk says almost as much as her failure to kick him out of her bedroom later that night.

This isn’t to say that a well-placed declaration can’t be powerful, but some of the best writing gets at emotions obliquely, because that’s how we get at them ourselves.  It’s rare that people say what they really feel.  Hell, we often don’t know ourselves well enough to be that honest.  Part of the joy of a good story is participating in the mystery of what, exactly, is going on in the characters' hearts.  Showing emotion rather than  having it declared also gives a writer the chance to load up a scene with more detail and nuance than could be achieved with a simple, “Will you go to bed with me?”  To illustrate, here are two examples from the beginnings of two very different relationships:

From People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks*:
        He reached over then and wiped a smear of grease off my cheek.  I stopped laughing.  I reached for his hand before he could withdraw it, and turned it over in my own.  It was a scholar’s hand, to be sure, with clean, well-kept nails.  But there were calluses as well.  I suppose even scholars had to chop wood, if they could find any, during the siege.  The tips of his fingers glistened with the lamb grease from my cheek.  I brought them to my lips and licked them, slowly, one by one.  His green eyes regarded me, asking a question anyone could understand.
Zow!  There’s no “do you like me?” moment.  There’s no "do you want to come upstairs?"  There is only risk and the wordless communication that follows.  Even if you haven't met these two characters (and you should; the book is amazing), you can probably pick up on how different their lives have been up until this point.  They each approach this initial trial with their own tolerance for rejection.

Here’s the initiation of a very different sort of relationship from Allegra Goodman’s Intuition
            Then suddenly she was embarrassed.  She felt herself blushing, heat spreading under her skin.  The others were calling out to them from the table, and she would have run away if he hadn’t been holding her.  She closed her eyes for a second, trying to remember the steps.  She listened to the music and counted silently to herself: one, two, one-two, and then plunged in, as she might jump into freezing water.
            The pressure of his hand on her waist surprised her.
            “What are you doing?” he asked her.
            She looked up at him, confused.
            “I’ll lead,” he said.
I’ll bet you can see where this one’s going.  If you think about it long enough, you might be able to reconstruct the whole plot from those 100 words.  We have two individuals used to being in control, but one of them has a great deal more self-assurance.  It won't end well. 

Both of these examples are packed with emotion, and we get to infer what's going on from what the players do rather than what they say.  The authors could have gone about revealing those deeper themes in other ways.  In People of the Book, Brooks could have had her female protagonist think to herself, "I knew he wouldn't make the next move, so I did it for him, taking his hand and drawing his index finger into my mouth."  Goodman could have had her main character ponder the wisdom of dancing with this man, could have had her wonder whether she made herself vulnerable by accepting.  I think their restraint makes for more engaging stories.  

How do you like your emotion served?  Can it be too cold?

*p. 31-32, Penguin Books, 2008
**p. 65, The Dial Press, 2006


  1. Awesome post. I think the best writers are the ones that DON'T spell everything out. (And it's one of the reasons I don't like YA -- YA books that don't spell everything out are the exception, it seems. And I feel random for saying that but I've been thinking about it lately dammit.)

    I love the examples you used here.

  2. Thanks! And I agree--I love it when a scene lets my imagination fill in the gaps. It makes for a richer reading experience, I think.

  3. I'm a YA writer, but I want everyone's imagination to take flight. Some readers might not like that in the end, but it's the imagination that takes us away in the first places; it's what drives us to read is it not?

    I love your blog!

  4. Thanks! And I totally agree. That's why I prefer books to movies (most of the time...)