Tell Me

DrawingI have a friend I don’t see very often.  When I do, and we’re catching up, she launches into stories about her life that are interlarded with names and events of which I know nothing.  It means that I feel both bewildered and shut out.  I think she believes that because she knows all these things I, as her friend, must know them too.  But it frustrates me, and I’m pretty sure that’s not her intent.

There are books like that, too.  

I love twisty stories that demand my full attention.  I love finding out that the tiny detail I didn’t think was important was really a lynchpin.  What I don’t love is stories full of murky portent, where the author clearly believes I should get something–an emotion, a plot point, a meaning–that is not on the page.  It’s every bit as wearing as listening to my friend assume that I know everyone she knows.

A couple of years ago I was workshopping with a writer who had written a story which made no sense until he explained some things which had eluded the rest of us.  He was surprised.  He thought the details were clearly implied.  When someone said that he was not implying clearly enough, he said rather defensively, “But I don’t want to just tell them everything!”  To which another writer asked, baldly, “Why not?”  Good question.

One of the things I love about the movie The Sixth Sense is that it plays fair.  Once you get to the big reveal at the end of the movie, you can go back and see that it’s all there–all the cues to the true situation of the film are there*.  It “tells everything.”  It’s clever–but it’s not just clever.  Even if there wasn’t a big reveal, it would be a good story.

I completely understand not wanting everything to be obvious.  Each writer has to find their own line between obvious and obscure.  Even then… I read once that Robert Browning was approached by a fan who asked him about a line she didn’t understand in one of his poems.  Browning read the line, read it again, shook his head, and admitted that “when I wrote this line the only people who understood it were God and Robert Browning.  Now that privilege is reserved to God alone.”  I’m betting that at the time he wrote it, Browning was certain he’d said what he meant.

I’m probably a little paranoid about being unclear.  It’s about the worst thing I can imagine (for certain values of worst; I’m pretty sure being caught in a pit with many many snakes would be at least as bad).  What I don’t think you want to do, as a writer, is leave your readers feeling bewildered or shut out.  That never ends well.

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* Just in case you’re the last human in the world who hasn’t seen The Sixth Sense, I’m not going to spoil it here.  But I will point out that Soylent Green is people.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books

Comments

Tell Me — 11 Comments

  1. I tell my writing classes that nobody ever says, “Your book — it’s just too clear and understandable! Can you make it more obscure and difficult?”

    • But people *do* say ‘I could spot every detail from a mile off – how boring’ and ‘obvious writer is obvious’ and ‘I did not really need the third repetition of that, thank you very much’. I can think of as many books I dislike for being too obscure as I dislike for patronising me and treating readers as if they were stupid.

      My mental model of a successful novel is connect-the-dots: too few dots, (or worse, missing and misleading ones) and it’s frustrating, but if the whole picture is already there and the reader only gets to add in a few short lines, it’s boring beyong belief.

      • It’s the dots that don’t seem to mean anything in particular that I’m railing against. I don’t want obvious. I like a challenge. But I don’t like to feel like I’m reading a code I have no possibility of deciphering. Meaningful glances that convey no meaning. Conversations that draw on experiences of the two characters but illuminate neither the characters nor the situation. I like your connect-the-dots analogy; I just want to be able to see the dots; if they’re too faint, I don’t get to connect them (and the writer doesn’t get to show me how really clever she is).

  2. Mad, is this paragraph supposed to be smaller in size? I have no idea if this is Firefox 18 or another exciting Windows 8 screw-up.

    I completely understand not wanting everything to be obvious. Each writer has to find their own line between obvious and obscure. Even then… I read once that Robert Browning was approached by a fan who asked him about a line she didn’t understand in one of his poems. Browning read the line, read it again, shook his head, and admitted that “when I wrote this line the only people who understood it were God and Robert Browning. Now that privilege is reserved to God alone.” I’m betting that at the time he wrote it, Browning was certain he’d said what he meant.

  3. Pingback: Know thy book «

  4. I think I err in the other direction. When I’m telling things to a friend, I tend to get so caught up in providing the background information (which, in many cases, they already know) that I forget the point of the story. When writing, I include a lot of that background in my first drafts, because I’m still figuring it out. Then I have to go back and edit out the stuff the reader doesn’t need to know (or need to know yet).