Monday Motivation: The choice between trumpets and piccolos
In life, we prefer to avoid conflictual situations, ducking out of confrontations, avoiding arguments, generally seeking peaceful co-existence with our fellows.
In fiction, by contrast, where there’s no drama without conflict, the juiciest scenes are those in which two adversaries meet head-to-head in argument or worse. So, the writer will discard frictionless options, and choose instead situations in which characters rub each other up the wrong way, annoy each other, misunderstand each other, take umbrage, harbour a grudge or have their noses put out of joint.
Here’s another way in which life differs from fiction:
In life, we dread that sense of impending doom that suggests the imminent arrival of really bad news. Of course, we’d prefer to avoid the bad news altogether – but if it has to be given, let it be given all at once. The calculation here is that a clear declaration of the facts – war, bankruptcy, marital betrayal, a dread disease – is preferable to the slow accretion of disturbing incidents that more than likely will induce more stress and anxiety than the truth would.
In fiction, we prefer the clever planting of clues, the subtle misdirection that has us note, without alarm, the scratch at the door. Must be the cat, thinks the perspective character, or a branch blown by the scudding breeze, it can’t possibly be that serial killer everyone’s been talking about, surely?
Of course, we’d never, ever plant a clue quite as blatantly as that, would we? But I hope you agree with me that, in principle, it’s better to be casually suggestive about these things than to blurt them out.
Why, you ask? If our purpose as writers is to be clear and economical, then what sense does it make to retreat coyly in this way from the simple declaration of the facts?
I’ll let that question be answered by Stanley Kubrick, the director, you’ll remember, of such masterpieces as 2001, Dr Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, among others.
“If you really want to communicate something,” he said, “even if it’s just an emotion or an attitude, let alone an idea, the least effective and least enjoyable way is directly. It only goes in about an inch. But if you can get people to the point where they have to think a moment what it is you’re getting at, and then discover it, the thrill of discovery goes right through the heart.”*
Never forget that every book is a collaboration between the writer and the reader. If the reader is not invited to draw conclusions from the evidence – those clues – the writer provides, then she becomes simply a recipient of the writer’s wisdoms. She has nothing to do but let the words waft through her. They might be beautiful, the sentences elegant crafted, the characters attractively presented – but the reader’s experience of them will be essentially a passive one.
But if she’s engaged in mining the text for meaning and significance, she’ll be an active and engaged reader – and that’s what you want.
* I just love the quite blood-thirsty image he employs, don’t you?