Unfinished Business

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A Confusing Drama)

My very first blog on this site talked about how authors should consider leaving some elements unsaid. That by merely hinting at things, and then letting the reader fill in the gaps, they encourage a more active investment from their audience. The trick, of course, is to not overdo it, and make things so obfuscated that no one has any idea what you’re even talking about.

With the most recent entry of Raise the Black Sun I found myself wondering which side of that line I had fallen on. Specifically I am referring to a scene where the protagonist is fighting with a witch. He and his companions had fallen victim to illusions that she presented them, but when he broke free of these delusions she grabbed him from behind and started to choke him.

Then, in a moment of epiphany, he realizes the way the witch’s magic works is that she suggests a reality to you, and then, once you start to believe in it, it start to become real. With that knowledge he realizes that if he can convince himself that he is holding a dagger in his hand, then her magical aura would make it so. And because he knows that her magical aura will make it so, it is easy to convince himself that there is a dagger in his hand. His cyclical logic manifests in the weapon, and he uses it to defeat the witch.

 

Knowing More Than I Said)

I thought it was a neat little sequence…but I didn’t actually write it out that way. This is a story of desperation and fear, and it is told by a somber, haunted soul. It just didn’t feel right to have him giddily narrate his epiphany to the reader, so I cut that part out. Instead the dagger just appears in his hand, with only some slight suggestions as to how it even got there. I rather suspect that some–or all–of my audience was left thinking some form of the following:

“Wait, what just happened? Did he have the dagger on his belt all along? But why did it disappear after she died? Did she make it then? Why would she do that?”

I thought about this lack of information a good deal before pressing Publish on the piece, but ultimately decided that a little bit of confusion in the reader would actually be entirely appropriate for a story like this.

It is a story about a young man caught up in something much larger than himself, and a major theme of the entire work is his inability to understand the wheel that turns him. I thought it would be fitting, then, for the reader to have a moment of not being sure how the world was working either.

 

Be Cautious)

I enjoyed this little exercise in selective obfuscation, and I think this sort of process has a lot of potential for certain story types. But I would definitely urge extreme caution in choosing to utilize this particular trick. While it may work in some situations, I believe in most cases it would only be frustrating to the audience.

As such, I decided that if I was going to go ahead with this exercise, I was going to adhere to a couple rules that would ensure I was playing fair with the reader. It was important to me, for example, that there be an actual answer as to what happened. I didn’t want to be cheap and write something that was completely unfounded. It’s easy to confuse people if you just write things without any personal logic for them, and I didn’t want to be guilty of cheating the story in that way.

Thus I developed a complete, logical explanation for what had happened, and from that selected which parts to actually share. My hope is that each reader will either be able to tease out what actually transpired, or at the very least be able to see enough breadcrumbs to convince them that the answers are there, even if they cannot work them out.

 

More Unexplored Ideas)

There was something else I wanted to accomplish in the witch’s scene, something that I have been trying to accomplish throughout all of this particular story. I have sought to introduce numerous ideas to the reader which are then intentionally abandoned before they can be fully developed on.

All of my readers should be able to understand that the witch uses illusion and trickery to project something that is false, but that if she can get someone to believe in the illusion, gradually it actually becomes real. It’s an interesting idea, and one that seems like it could be iterated on quite a good deal further. I like to hope that readers would like to see a few more examples of this in play, that they would like to know more about why the witches even do this, and how they come about their power, and all manner of other questions that will never be answered in this story.

I had similar hopes with the Scrayer, whom I introduced in the second part of this story. I hope the image of a giant of a man, draped in black and wielding a weapon that literally dissolves men into powder makes a sharp impression on the reader. I hope it lodges into the mind and makes them wonder about what else is hiding just behind the curtain of this world.

I hope the story of a doomed caravan driven a thousand miles by men that have surrendered possession of their own hearts stirs somber wonderings within.

In short, I am trying to write a story where so very little is said, but so very much is implied. A world that seems to be made of a thousand folds, of which we are shown only a small slice, rife with unfinished turns and incomplete ends.

This is my approach. It is possible that audiences will not like it, that they will feel too much was left unsaid, and will be left with a sense of frustration. It is possible…and to write this story I had to decide that I was okay with that possibility. I am okay that this tale might be frustrating. Because regardless of all else, I think it makes for a better story. One which I genuinely feel has a lot to offer, with even more than is contained within its words. It may not be for everyone, but I think it is a stronger experience for those that it is for.

On Thursday we will see yet another partial disclosure of this story when our Treksmen arrive at their destination. As with everything else, what they see will be but the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully it will be enough to suggest an ancient and storied lore, one that can be sensed and breathed, even if not heard and seen.

The Little Details

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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.