I’m having a discussion on Goodreads about writing in the first person. For those who don’t speak writer-geek, that is telling a story as if the narrator is talking directly to you. I did this, then I did that. That’s the first person.
We got into an interesting discussion about how much information to include when writing fiction. That reminded me of a discovery I made some years ago. Good writing is as much about what you leave out as what you put in.
When I say that I made that discovery, I don’t mean that I invented it. Good God, no. Far better writers than me have known this for centuries. I was belatedly joining the party in my usual dim-witted way.
Good writers paint with holes.
Right now, I can imagine that at least some of you are spluttering in your coffee. What a load of arty-farty BS, I can imagine you saying. Get to the point, man!
Okay, let’s have a choon. How about some Beatles?
Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?
Who is Eleanor Rigby? What is her story? Who is she waiting for?
We don’t know. Paul McCartney didn’t know when he wrote the song. Apparently, he started with the tune. Then he came up with the phrase:
‘Ola Na Tungee
Blowing his mind in the dark
With a pipe full of clay
No one can say.’
He played around with it some more and found “picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been.” That gave him the theme of loneliness. Then he added a name – first Daisy Hawkins and then Eleanor Rigby.
But here’s the kicker. Paul McCartney almost certainly didn’t have any more of a back story than that. When he asks “Who is it for?” he is genuinely asking the question. He simply does not know.
The song works brilliantly well precisely because there isn’t enough information to process the story. This means that our imaginations have to fill in the gaps. And our imaginations are a damn sight more powerful and creative than anything a writer can write.
Not convinced? Then let’s talk about “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. There have been no end of theories about what this means. Some have claimed that the initials spell LSD, and that it is a song about drugs. John Lennon and Paul McCartney both denied this. They say that John’s son Julian painted a picture whilst at nursery school. When John asked him what the picture was about, the infant Julian said: It’s Lucy (a school friend) in the sky with diamonds.
And that was that. John loved the phrase so much that he wrote a song about it.
What does it mean? Absolutely nothing. It means whatever you want it to mean. It’s an abstract phrase which gets your creative juices flowing. But don’t bother trying to pin down a hidden meaning. There isn’t one.
Another example? Here’s the beginning of the wonderful Jabberwocky:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
And stood awhile in thought.
What exactly is a vorpal sword? Is it a very sharp sword? A sword made from an element called Vorpal? A magic sword? A particular design of sword?
Who knows? All of the above. None of them. Something else.
This is the thing that good writers know almost instinctively. You don’t need to explain everything in prose or poetry. Leave some gaps for the reader to fill in with their imagination.
This can seem counter-intuitive when we are learning to write. Our instincts are to put lots of information in. That’s what the books say, isn’t it? That we should add colour and feelings and sensations.
Well, yes and no. We need to give the reader enough information to get their imaginations going, but then we should step back and let them fill in the gaps.
For example, we might be tempted to describe everything that happens to our characters. Mighty Conan wakes up, gets dressed in his finest loincloth, brushes his teeth with his ancestral toothbrush and straps his favourite broadsword to his back. Then he has breakfast of raw tiger meat, freshly brewed mead and …
Whoa. Can we hit fast forward and get to the interesting bits? We don’t need to tell the readers how we got there. Let’s start from the part where he is fighting a giant lizard.
It happens a lot in dialogue. Our temptation might be to say something like:
“I love you,” breathed Princess Leia, simperingly.
“I know,” replied Han Solo, stoically.
But if we do this we are denying our readers the chance to think for themselves. We don’t need the adverbs or the alternatives for ‘said’ (known in the trade as said-bookisms).
The more modern way to write this would be:
“I love you,” said Leia.
That’s it. Nothing else. Naked. Some writers would even quibble with the “said Leia.”
The point is that the reader will add in the emotions. We leave stuff out and they will put it straight back in. Honest. Trust me on this one.
It is the same when we are writing in the first person – the point where we came in. We might be tempted to include lots of information about how we are feeling and what we are doing.
“I saw the T-Rex turn to look at me. It was massive and powerful, with sharp claws and strangely undersized arms. I was terrified that it might eat me up whole. I reached inside my pocket for my gun and …”
Whilst this is sort of okay, we can take our red pen to several parts of it. We don’t need to say “I saw…” In a first person story it is pretty obvious that I am the one doing all the seeing. That’s called filtering because it distances us from the action.
We also don’t really need to say that “I was terrified it might eat me up whole.” That is also pretty obvious. Let the reader experience that emotion for themselves.
So there you have it. One of the most important tools that writers have is the delete button. We can make our writing more powerful by leaving stuff out.
Painting with holes.