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Same Ways to Say Different Things)

The same sentence can take on entirely different meanings, depending on its context.

“You’re a real work of art,” the painter said reverently as he etched her figure into the canvas.

“You’re a real work of art,” the officer said as he pulled the passed-out drunk to his feet.

Even under the same context, the same sentence can change, based on how the words are spoken.

“I wouldn’t do something like that!” he protested.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she affirmed softly.

 

“I wouldn’t do something like that!” he protested.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” she rolled her eyes.

What is interesting about this example is that in the first instance I communicated her sincerity by describing the tone of her words directly, while in the second instance I said nothing about her intonation whatsoever, I only detailed her body language. That alone will be enough for the reader to recognize the dialogue as being sarcastic. In fact the reader is able to retroactively apply the sarcasm to the remark, and still maintain a coherent understanding as they go.

I could also try to communicate the sarcasm simply by how I italicize the words as well.

Of course you wouldn’t.”

It might work, but most likely some readers would not comprehend the sentence correctly. Though they might if the context of sarcasm had already been established.

“I don’t know what she’s been telling you, but it’s not true!” he pounded the table.

“Spoken with all the conviction of a liar.”

“I wouldn’t do something like that!”

Of course you wouldn’t.”

 

The Better Communication)

I believe most readers will agree that

“Of course you wouldn’t” she rolled her eyes

is better than the more explicit

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically.

This matters a great deal, because a story is appreciated not only by what it says, but how it says it. Two drafts could feature the exact same plot points, the same clever twists and turns, the same characters and scenes, and even all the same words of dialogue, but if one takes the route of explicitly detailing each and every moment it will be appreciably inferior to the one which utilizes subtle implication.

But why? If the final interpretation is the same, why do we prefer one version over the other? Let’s see if we can figure it out from a different example, one that doesn’t involve any dialogue whatsoever.

The bad man pulled out his knife. He put it into the other man’s chest. The man who was stabbed bled and died.

There was a shriek of metal rubbing over metal as he flicked his wrist outwards, and a bolt of white steel reflected in the moonlight. It streaked through the shadows like a shot of lightning, and like lightning it buried itself into a larger body, burrowed deep until it found rich, red oil, and burst it out like a geyser. There was a surprised cry, and a life crumpled to the floor.

Though the first example communicates the events extremely clearly, which style would you rather read a story in? Perhaps the second one was too indirect for your tastes, but at least it doesn’t feel so juvenile as the first. And let’s pause to consider that word for a moment: juvenile.

 

Intelligent Descriptions)

When a story is over-communicated it tends to feel immature to us. It seems as though the author has no faith in their reader’s imagination, or else has no imagination of their own.

We find it immature when things are over-explained, because then there is no cognitive effort necessary on the part of the reader. Usually we like our entertainment to engage us, to suggest thoughts and ideas that extend beyond what is explicitly spelled out. If the way a story is written leaves nothing to the imagination, then we are put into an inactive state of mind.

This is why the line

“Of course you wouldn’t” she rolled her eyes

works so well. It describes the eyes, but it suggests far more. It immediately kickstarts the reader’s imagination, for it is hard to picture her rolling eyes without also conjuring other images such as her arms crossed in front of her chest, a slight shake of her head, and of course that sarcastic lilt to her voice. The text isn’t ambiguous, we have explicitly spelled out that she is disbelieving, but the full portrayal of that disbelief is left to interpretation.

To instead write

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically

does not invite much imagination. It is possible for the reader to start thinking up little details that aren’t described, but they are not being pushed towards doing so in the same way as with the first sentence. Worst of all would be something that denied all imagination to the reader. Something like

“Of course you wouldn’t” she said sarcastically. She further emphasized her feelings with a small shake of the head and her arms folded disapprovingly in front of her.

It simply paints too clear of a picture.

On Thursday I published an interrogation scene, and the suspect was extremely chagrined at the whole affair. I communicated as much with my short description of her: “She had her arms folded in front of her, and her eyes were steeled in defense.” From that point on I made only the occasional update on her posture and tone of voice, only to reinforce in the reader’s mind that her stance was uncooperative. Between those moments I literally let her words do the talking, absent any descriptions whatsoever. What I did do, though, was to make each of her statements extremely short and brusque. That abrasive staccato should be enough to push the reader into imagining the scene on their own.

In my next postIn my next post I will return to the story, and it is going to feature two scenes that are quite emotionally charged. My intention will be to provide the readers just what they need to infer the atmosphere of the room, but not so much that they cannot apply their own interpretations to it. Come back on Thursday to see how it turns out.

2 thoughts on “The Little Details

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