Sunday, April 21, 2013

In Praise of Things Not Said

I don't usually write about writing.  This is because most people who choose to do so are offering advice, and I don't have any advice to share.  Anything I've learned about this art applies, as far as I can tell, only to me.  I continue to believe that there are as many different ways to write, and to think about writing, as there are writers - maybe even as many different ways as there are different writing projects. 

But one particular aspect of writing has been on my mind lately, so I want to discuss it here.  I can't tell anyone what not to write, any more than I can tell them what to write or how to write it.  But I will say that I am becoming more and more enamored of what is not written. 

As a reader, I love the pleasure of finding something lurking just below the actual written lines of a story.  It alarms me that so much of what is published now seems to spell everything out, leaving no emotion unexplored, no description unelaborated, no stone unturned.  Such writing serves the passive or lazy or hurried reader well, but disappoints those of us who would rather be actively involved.

What exactly am I talking about, you may well ask.  Let me give you just a few examples:

Ernest Hemingway

In Hemingway's short story, Hills Like White Elephants (1927), a conversation is taking place between a man and a woman.  The reader gets little in the way of description, but can learn a great deal from the dialogue.  They are discussing a situation, never explicitly stated:  the woman is facing an operation.  That operation is never defined.  And yet, the whole mood/force/impact of the story depends upon that operation. 

Would Hemingway's story be better, or stronger, or clearer if he had explicitly stated that the couple was talking about terminating a pregnancy?  I don't think so.  Follow the link and read the story, and see what you think. 

Gudrun Osvifsdottir (Andreas Bloch, 1860-1917)

I particularly love the Icelandic sagas when I crave story writing that does much with little.  As Jane Smiley said in an article written for The Guardian, the sagas, which she calls "cryptic," "...specialised in the economically rendered but telling detail, and the reader has to be alert to pick up the undercurrents of the story.... There is also a customary use of understatement..."

For instance, here's a snippet from the Saga of the People of Laxardal, translated by Seamus Heaney:

Gudrun then walked away from the stream and came up towards Halldor and his party, and asked for news of their encounter with Bolli.  They told her what had happened.  Gudrun was wearing a long tunic, a close-fitting woven bodice and a mantle on her head.  She had bound a shawl about her that was decorated in black stitching with fringes at the ends.  Helgi Hardbeinsson walked over to Gudrun and used the end of her shawl to dry the blood off the spear with which he had pierced Bolli.  Gudrun looked at him and merely smiled.  

I suspect that if this paragraph had been written today, in a book destined for publication by a major publishing house, we would have been told every possible detail of rapid heartbeats, sinking feelings in the stomach, dry mouth, meaningful exchanges of glances, mingled emotions of satisfaction and dismay, and exactly what sorts of persons Gudrun and Helgi were and what sorts of power struggle were going on here.  Oh, and for added "immediacy" it would probably be written in the present tense.

None of that is there.  And yet, all of it is.  

The power of what isn't said.  It doesn't let the reader kick back and wait to be told everything; it draws him in, makes him work. 

Next example:  the inimitable Dorothy Dunnett, at a pivotal moment in Book  Five of her Lymond Chronicles series, The Ringed Castle, gives us these words:

Too late, too late, too late.  It had happened.

Does she tell us what has happened?  No.  Is there anyone who has read this far in the series who doesn't immediately know?  Also no.  Would it be better, tidier, more thorough, more true if she had spelled it out?  Emphatically no.  All of the tension and the weight of that moment would have dissipated like a balloon leaking air.  (If you haven't read these books, I heartily recommend them.  They are like nothing else you've ever encountered, and Dunnett is a master of working with what is not said.)

Ugolino and his Sons (Giuseppe Diotti, 1820)

And finally, let me end with something from Dante.  In the Inferno, Cantos 32 and 33, in the depths of Hell (9th circle), we encounter the shade of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca.  He is one of two "frozen in one hole so that one head was a hat to the other; and as bread is eaten by the starving, so the one above put his teeth to the other, there where the brain joins the nape" [translation by Robert M. Durling].  The one above is Count Ugolino, and he is eternally gnawing on his great enemy, the Archbishop Ruggieri. 

These two men were powerful political adversaries in Pisa in the late 13th century.  Ugolino explains to Dante and Virgil that the archbishop had imprisoned Ugolino and his sons and grandsons in a tower and nailed up the door, depriving them of food and drink, whereupon they starved to death over a period of days, suffering greatly. 

The power of the unsaid is evoked in this passage [translation by Durling]:

"After we had reached the fourth day, Gaddo
threw himself stretched out at my feet, saying: 'My
father, why do you not help me?'
There he died, and as you see me, I saw the three
fall one by one between the fifth day and the sixth;
and I,
already blind, took to groping over each of them,
and for two days I called them, after they were dead.
Then fasting had more power than grief."

The question was raised among Dante scholars:  Did this last line mean that Ugolino indulged in cannibalism, eating the bodies of his sons and grandsons as he now gnawed on his enemy?  Or does it simply mean that he starved to death?  Dante wrote the Inferno more than 700 years ago, and people are still arguing this point.  The story of Ugolino is one of the two or three best-known passages in the entire Divine Comedy

Would it have been any better if Dante had left it unambiguous?  You know by now what I'm going to say to that. 

Images in this post are in the public domain.


Jessica Knauss said...

Great post! I often want to leave things unsaid in my writing, but the pressure is to s p e l l i t o u t...

Tinney Heath said...

Thanks, Jessica. That's so true - even my trusted beta readers tended to want more backstory than I wanted to put in, for example. And when I try to leave my equivalent of a "pregnant pause," people have a tendency to demand an immediate Caesarian.

Julie K. Rose said...

There's nothing I don't love about this post. Outstanding.

Tinney Heath said...

Thank you, Julie. Having read your work, I'm not surprised that you appreciate subtlety and nuance, and the power of the unsaid.

Julie K. Rose said...

You're too kind!

Carla E. Anderton said...

A great post on a subject not often explored! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Judith Starkston said...

The best and hardest part of writing and you've done such a stupendous job of showing how it's done. Gorgeous post. What a perceptive reader as well as writer you are. Thanks.

Tinney Heath said...

Thank you, Carla and Judith. I really appreciate your kind words!