Thursday, April 18, 2013

Let the Reader tell the Story

The writers I love to read and the ones I most respect are minimalists -- Ernest Hemingway topping that list -- because I've always felt there's something to be said for conveying much by saying little. In fact, a Hemingway quote hangs in my classroom: "I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen." Listening well requires the ability to infer details and information. This is an important skill for students to have. But it is also one readers rely on and, I would argue, one they desire.

The adage "show, don't tell" is timeless for several reasons. One reason that doesn't get much airtime is: readers like to play a role in the story. That is, a reader doesn't want to be spoon fed information; he wants to figure out things on his own Fiction, after all, has never been technical writing, and some details known by the writer simply do not need to be conveyed.

An excellent example exists in Hemingway's classic story "Hills Like White Elephants." In it, Hemingway describes the girl, Jig, by telling readers she sets her hat on the table. It's 1927. The couple is in Europe. So, given these details, what does the hat look like? I imagine it as a wide-brimmed sunhat. And if Jig is wearing a sunhat, what does the rest of her outfit look like? The reader fills in this information subconsciously. That's Hemingway's desire. And if it wasn't, the great author would have filled in the gaps of the clothing details for us. Similarly, if I write "The cop wore a leather jacket," the reader can infer what the rest of the cop's outfit consists of. And if the reader's inference isn't exactly the same as mine, so be it. The reader should get to make choices and play a role in the telling of the story.

The central questions the writer must consider are: How do people know us, and how do we know others? We are what we do (action) and say (dialogue). But we are also what we wear and what we collect. For instance, what does this room say about the people who live in the house?

A family portrait dominated the eastern wall, and the room's lights seemed arranged to highlight it. In the portrait, everyone wore khaki -- pants for the twins and him, a skirt for her -- and matching white tennis shirts; navy blue sweaters draped over the twins' shoulders. The family stood on a beach somewhere. In the background, the ocean was calm. The picture window offered sunlight that splashed off the cherry hardwood floor and the leather sofa. The editions lining the bookcases were hardbacks, the spines of most seemed never to have been cracked. There was a fireplace along the far wall, but the bricks lacked the charred remains of regular usage.

What can be inferred about this family? Socioeconomic status, for starters. What is the rest of the house like? Can we guess what kind of vehicles they drive?

As a writer, you must decide which details to let readers infer and which to provide. But taking care of your readers means letting them play a role in the telling of the story.


Toe Hallock said...

Mr. Corrigan/Delaney: Thank you for your comments. I used to hate Hemingway. Can you believe that? Grew up reading 19th century stuff where everything was described in great detail. Or do I deceive myself? I recently read something in a short story that resonated with me. "The handyman. Is he out back working in the yard?" "I think he's on a lunch break right now. You can find him through the side gate over there." I saw the whole scene in my mind with hardly any major detail. Pretty amazing stuff. Again, thanks for bringing this up. Yours truly, Toe.

Vicki Delany said...

John, you should have a peek at the Rapid Reads line of books from Orca Publishing (fulll disclosue Barbara, Rick and I all have books from them). They are adult books, adult themes, but short and written specifically for reluctant readers. I like to think of them as a novel stripped down to it's very essence.

Hannah Dennison said...

Great post. I love Hemingway.

John R. Corrigan / K.A. Delaney said...

Thanks for the replies. These are great. And I will check out Rapid Reads.