Writing Secrets: Revelations need not bash readers over the head

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

Readers are clever. They pick up the subtlest clues and don’t need the point hammered home for them. Last week I spoke about the subtle way Barbara Kingsolver leaves a trail of clues for us to come to a realisation – even before the character does.

When it comes to the final reveal, though, the temptation is often to make the point too obviously; to hit it on the head.

Readers don’t need us to do that. In our daily lives and in books, we pick up the cues and form impressions in our minds. We’re primed to do so, in life and in literature. You can afford to be oblique. We’ll get the point.

In Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, the character believes herself to be menopausal, and keeps finding the evidence to support her belief that she’s entering a new, older phase of life. During this slow accretion of clues, we begin to wonder (before she does) if she’s really as menopausal as she thinks she is.

Eventually, it dawns on her – and this too, Kingsolver handles with great subtlety:

At some point from yesterday to today, the air had gone from soggy to brittle. The Virginia creeper on the cabin had begun to turn overnight. This morning she had noticed a few red leaves, just enough to make her pause and take note of history.

This was the day, would always be the day, when she first knew. She would step somehow from the realm of ghosts that she’d inhabited all her life, to commit herself irrevocably to the living. On the trail up to this overlook today, she had paid little mind to the sadness of lost things moving through the leaves at the edges of her vision, the shadowy little wolves and the bright-winged parakeets hopping wistfully through untouched cockleburs. These dispossessed creatures were beside her, would always be with her. But just for today, she noticed instead a single bright red berry among all the clusters of green ones covering the spice bushes.

This sign seemed meaningful and wondrous standing as a divide between one epoch of her life and the next. If the summer had to end somewhere, why couldn’t it be in one red spice bush berry beside the path?

She slipped the small borrowed mirror, his shaving mirror, from her back pocket and looked closely at her face. With the tips of her left fingers, she touched the slightly mottled darker skin beneath her eyes. It was like a racoon’s mask, but subtler, spreading from the bridge of her nose out to her cheekbones … Her breasts were heavier, she could feel that change internally … She looked at her auburn oriole. It seemed like a miracle that skin could change like this in colour and texture in so short a time, like caterpillar skin taking on the colour and texture of a moth’s. Briefly, as if testing the temperature of water, she touched her abdomen just over her navel where the top button of her jeans no longer conceded to meet its buttonhole.

Deanna wondered briefly just how much of a fool she had been, for how long. Ten weeks at the most, probably less, but still. She’d known bodies, her own especially, and she hadn’t known this. Was it something a girl learned from a mother, that secret church of female knowledge that had never let her in?

All the things she had heard women say did not seem right. She had not been sick, not craved to eat anything strange, except for turkey. Was that strange? She’d only felt as though a bomb had exploded in the part of her mind that kept her on an even keel. She’d mistaken that for love or lust or peri-menopause or an acute invasion of privacy, and as it turned out, it was all of these, and none. The explosion had frightened her for the way it had loosened her grip on the person she’s always presumed herself to be. But maybe this was what this was going to be – a long, long process of coming undone from oneself.

I love that. It’s never spelt out for the reader. The word “pregnant” is never used. It shows, once again, the power of restraint in good writing.

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