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.
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.
On Thursday I concluded a short story, though really that “story” was more like the first act of a much bigger piece. I’ve had a few posts on here that fit into that category: Power Suit Racing, Phisherman, Network Down, and Imposed Will. These examples are different from my other works that have featured open endings, but still felt narratively complete.
For each of these “first-acts,” I don’t actually know what the rest of their story would look like. There are obvious conflicts and themes that their beginnings suggest, but I never figured out what the final implementation of those would be. If it were possible, I would like to give full expression to all of these incomplete ideas. As you might imagine, I write the sorts of stories that I would like to read, and these beginnings leave me hungry to discover their end.
And maybe I will complete some of these one day, but I’m certain I never will finish them all. There simply isn’t enough time. This has been a difficult reality to accept, but eventually I managed to do so. Not only that, I’ve come to see a beauty in it.
The Imagination Exceeds)
What it all comes down to is that my imagination is greater than my ability to produce. I have made mention of this trend in a previous blog post. There I mentioned that authors commonly hold a very clear vision of what they want their stories to convey, but when they write it out the result is far from that mark. So they rewrite it, and rewrite it, and rewrite it again. Each time they might get closer and closer to that original vision, but never quite there. Our reach very easily exceeds our grasp.
One can live in denial of that limitation or they can accept it. Indeed, one of the surest signs of an amateur is the unrealistic expectations they still set for themselves. “There’s no way this story will take me more than a year to write…year-and-a-half, tops. And it’ll be a masterpiece!” The imagination is nothing if not ambitious!
Though the first doses of reality might taste bitter, they really are the cure. The sooner you make peace with your limitations and accept them, the sooner you can put together realistic plans that account for them.
Choosing Which Story Matters Most)
Once you come to terms with the fact that not all of your ideas can be brought to life, you will naturally come to the question of which ones should be. The most obvious answer is whichever one is the most exciting to you.
That might be the best option, but I recommend pausing to be sure. Because again, since we are being realistic now, crafting that tale is going to take a long time. So maybe this idea is really exciting to you right now, but is it going to remain so? Sometimes the most profound of ideas sound ridiculously immature a couple years later.
We have a severe disadvantage here, because any answers will be mere conjecture. We cannot read the future and we do not know what sort of life experiences are going to fundamentally shift our paradigms. We can only reliably measure the past.
For that reason, I would recommend using the past to try and gauge the future. When I decided which novel to focus on I chose With the Beast because I had been continually circling back to it for five years already. The fact that I was still finding its underlying concepts important suggested that it really did matter.
Even if you don’t have any story ideas that extend back that far, you probably have interests or beliefs that do. What ideas have consistently mattered the most to you over the years? Could you develop a story about them?
It’s Better This Way)
Now I mentioned already that I have not only made peace with my imagination exceeding my capacity to write, but that I have found a beauty in it as well. Indeed I truly see it as a blessing, because the alternative would be far, far worse.
To live in complete fulfillment of one’s fantasy would leave one nothing more to dream of. I would rather finish my life with songs unsung, than to have not had enough to fill my life. And the day I write a story and find nothing to improve is the day I stop growing as an author.
It may not seem like a great blessing at first, but truly this is the proper order of things. To forever chase after that elusive ideal, and by so doing traverse many miles. Perhaps in heaven we will attain the full expression of our imagination, but so long as we were on earth let us have an endless chase.
For now my novel writing is entirely focused on With the Beast. Whatever I write after that I will determine then, but I certainly have many options to choose from! On Thursday I would like to share a glimpse into just one of those options. It is a pairing to two mood pieces, one on the subject of darkness and the other on light. There are characters mentioned in them, but both pieces were originally written in isolation, with no greater narrative in mind. As I suggested above, though, ideas that matter to you might provide an excellent foundation for weaving a story around. That was my experience with these pieces. Their moods continued to haunt me, and soon I found myself wrapping an outline over them. On Thursday I won’t be disclosing that plot, but I will share the two scenes that seeded that narrative.
Hopefully one day I will have time to write out that story. And hopefully if I do, I will be able to decently evoke the scenes that I envision for it. Regardless, I am happy just to think of such things and grateful to share some of them with you.
Gavin had a hard time paying attention in school the next day. He had wanted to check his fly trap first thing in the morning, but knew it would have been miserable to start his experiments and then leave them unfinished.
He only half listened to the teachers in class. In his notebook he kept scrawling different ideas of things to try with a fly, complete with a flowchart of what test should follow which results. At the very top he had “Put fly in tube, see if it just dies right away.” If it did that was the end of the flowchart, so he hoped to at least get further than that. Next was to observe if it tried to fly, and if so whether its wings were able to beat. If so, were they able to move it. Even a little bit? If he wedged a stick inside of the tube and the floating fly came near would it grab the stick and move along it? What if he blew a fan through the tube? Would it be able to push the things? Or what if–
“Gavin, are you paying attention?”
“Yes.” Very close attention…just to other things.
That afternoon Gavin dashed through his front door, the mason jar already clutched in his hand. He bounded up the steps to his room, turning sideways to avoid knocking over his mother. “Hi! Back from school. It was fine, nothing to say about it. I’ll be in my room, okay?”
He bolted into his room and took his seat at the desk. Taking a few calming breaths he carefully removed the saran wrap from the jar and placed one of the strange tubes over its opening. There were three flies buzzing above the sugar-water at the bottom of the jar, and Gavin watched breathlessly as one of them buzzed closer and closer to the tube. It decided to stop to rest right at the lip of the jar. Gavin frowned and tapped twice on the glass. The fly darted into the tube…and froze.
Gavin put the saran wrap back over the jar and picked up the tube, peering through its center. As soon as the fly had crossed the threshold into its domain it had gone completely lifeless, not so much as beating a wing as it floated through empty space. Curiously, though, it had not curled its legs to its body. It really was frozen as if in a singular moment of time, its legs still extended and wings still raised. Was it dead then? Or just frozen?
Gavin reached in, curled his fingers around the fly, then drew his hand back out. Immediately he felt the creature buzzing against his palm. He extended his hand back in, the buzzing still continued, but once he opened his fingers the fly snapped back to its frozen state and floated listlessly.
“Well that’s interesting,” he muttered, pulling over his notebook and jotting down the results of the test.
So the fly couldn’t move. Could it think? Was it aware that it was motionless and confused about that? Or was it unconscious while in the void? He couldn’t think of a good way to test that.
So instead Gavin went through a few more experiments. It turned out that wedging a stick between the walls of the tube did not give the fly a way to escape floating. In fact, it couldn’t because the fly never touched it. The path it floated along would always push away from the stick whenever it got too close, just like how it did when avoiding the walls. Apparently the stick, being in direct contact with the wall, was now an extension of the wall. Gavin hadn’t expected that, given it was comprised of an entirely different material.
That suggested another experiment to Gavin. He reached in, cupped his hand around the fly, drew it out and listened for its buzzing, then put his hand back in the tube and opened it. But this time, as he did so, he pressed the fly against the wall of the tube, rather than dropping it into open space. This time the fly did not freeze. It crawled across the surface, moving at a constant high speed, and making sudden direction changes as if drawing out a pattern. It looked nothing like how Gavin had ever seen a fly move. Also it never flew. It never did anything to risk losing constant contact with the surface, even when Gavin poked at it with the end of his pencil.
Gavin introduced the other flies one at a time to the tube, all with the same results. If released into the air they became immobile and floated, if pressed against the tube wall they danced out strange patterns on its surface.
Next came water. Gavin angled the tube downwards and slowly tipped the mason jar until the water ran out of it. When only the first part of the water stream entered the tube it continued to fall as normal, but once the last drop was contained within the tube it lost its connection to the outside world and suddenly froze. It behaved like videos Gavin had seen of astronauts playing with liquids in a Zero-G environment. The water stream didn’t break apart, it just shimmered as one, long, snaking body in the middle of the tube. As with everything else, it began zigzagging from wall to wall, never touching them, never slowing in its ordered dance. As expected it never touched the stick or the flies as well. It did not act entirely as a single body, though. For example when it neared the stick it would sometimes split into two streams that would go around it. Sometimes those streams would rejoin, other times they would break off into their own entities. Once the two streams were completely separated they would never join again, they would each follow different patterns that seemed forever destined to to never intersect again.
“But how long could you really go without touching?” Gavin wondered aloud. He picked up the tube and walked with it to the bathroom. What if he tried to put more water into the tube than it could keep separated?
He turned the sink on and filled up a cup with water, then poured it into the tube. The stream floated around inside, continuing to split when it approached the stick head-on, continuing to avoid any contact other water streams. He filled up the cup and poured it in again. And again.
He couldn’t want to hold the tube directly under the faucet, because then it would be an unbroken stream of water that extended out of the tube’s confines. It was a very strange feeling, pouring cup after cup into the tube and not a single drop spilling out from the bottom. A faint inkling occurred to him that the physical properties of this tube went against everything he’d learned in school, and would therefore be of significance to other people…but at least for now he wanted to keep it only to himself.
As Gavin continued entering cupfuls of water the threads of water begin to divide and shrink to such a degree that they looked like tendrils of glass, each as thin as a spider’s thread. They criss-crossed and filled the space so completely that they almost appeared to be one volume. Yet still he could see the tiny glints that betrayed their separate edges, and knew that the threads still refused to touch.
Finally he reached the moment he’d waited for. As he poured in one more cup the water began to spill over and flow down the edges of the tube. The tube could not accept anymore volume without merging its streams of water, and so it rejected any further material.
Well, that was that then. Now Gavin wanted to get the water out and verify that not even a drop of it all had touched the flies or stick either. As he couldn’t pour the water out he would just have to scoop it the same way he had put it in. He grabbed the cup and began the long process. A vague thought occurred to him that the flies had probably died even if the water hadn’t touched them. He doubted the gaps between the water streams would have been able to hold enough oxygen to sustain them.
The thought then occurred to him that the flies had probably had just as little control on the edges of the tube as they had floating in the air. Their movement had been extremely similar to the floating movement, just projected onto the surface. It was the same pattern! He supposed that meant if he covered the walls with flies they would dance around and never touch? If he put a spider in with them would it just ignore all of the free food? He could–
Gavin had reduced the amount of water so that he had a clear view inside of the tube again. He had been waiting to see the flies, but now he realized they weren’t in there anymore! Neither was the stick. There were instead four black marks smeared across the inside of the tube in their place. Had they been crushed by all the water? But why?
Gavin turned the tube over in his hands, angling it so that the bathroom light shone more clearly on one of those dark smudges. No…it wasn’t just squashed fly guts there. It was something pure and shiny black, like tar. Although as he looked closer he saw it actually wasn’t a single goo, it was a thousand tiny strings, like millimeter-long strands of hair. And they were mobile, doing a sort of a waving gesture where they folded at their midpoint and then stood erect again.
Three flies, a stick, and a liter of water had gone in…these things were what came back out. The tube must have broken everything else down to create this. But what exactly were they? Tiny little strings of…organic sludge?
Gavin walked back to his bedroom and put the tube back on his desk. Then he strode back out with a purpose. The rest of the afternoon Gavin collected anything small and interesting he could find around the house and the alley outside, then he brought them back to his room. A few ice cubes, some small rocks, a piece of brick, ants and beetles, apple juice, a jug of water, rubbing alcohol, small pieces of glass, plastic, an old rag, a cigarette butt, a ping pong ball, bread, a strip of wood, some small weeds, a few metal screws, and a handful of dirt. He lined all the items up on his desk, right in front of his “islands.”
He pulled out his notebook and wrote down Tube #1. This was the one he had already been experimenting with. He wanted to continue to work with this one, following the same sort of structure it had already been on. Water and living tissue. He placed the beetles against the inner surface of the tube and released them to perform their erratic dances. The ants he dropped in the middle to float around. He added the weeds to this one as well, and finally filled it up with water. Done.
Tube #2. For this one he wanted to experiment with the natural materials. He put the ice in it, the small rocks, the strip of wood, and the dirt. Finally he added in the apple juice to fill up the rest of the space.
Tube #3. Here he would try the more synthetic things. The brick piece, the glass, a corner of the rag, the cigarette butt, the ping pong ball, the bread, and the metal screws. Then he poured in the alcohol. He had selected this particular tube because it was smaller, small enough that he didn’t need a whole liter of the alcohol to fill it up.
Of course some of the things had been too dense for the tubes to handle. The metal screws, the piece of brick, the rocks, and the glass. They had each just fallen to the bottom and stayed there. When he shook the tubes those pieces slid around and even fell out of the tube if tipped too far. Curiously, they were completely absent any residue of alcohol or water or anything else when they emerged. Still, the stick wedged into the tube yesterday had been similarly dense and it had decomposed, so perhaps that didn’t matter.
In any case, now there was nothing to do but call it a night and wait for tomorrow. It would be hard to be patient, but at least tomorrow was the weekend.
Monday I wrote about how I chose in this story to emulate some of the patterns in Shane Carruth’s stories. Most specifically I made use of a person applying scientific methodology to understanding something fantastic. Gavin is obviously an intelligent boy, but his lack of experience prevents him from fully realizing just how significant some of his simple discoveries are, such as the tube’s ability to completely untether its contents from gravity.
Sometimes when reading a story it can be aggravating for the audience to be stuck with a main character that understands less than the reader. Other times the main character will know more than the audience, and that can be frustrating as well. Other times, though, differences in understanding between characters and readers can be immensely satisfying. On Thursday I’d like to delve deeper into how an author disperses knowledge in unequal measures, and how it can be done either poorly or well. I’ll see you then!