Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Better Left Unsaid

I’ve played musical instruments for over twenty years, and I learned that while the notes are important, the rests (the moments of silence for your instrument) are equally important. Such omissions are also pertinent in writing.

I don’t mean that there should be large whitespaces between words or scenes. Instead, what I’m referencing are the pieces of narrative and dialog that we purposefully withhold from the reader. Let me provide an example of two pieces of writing and ask which is stronger.

Example 1:
“Hey, Don,” Evan said. “Did you go to the basketball game last night? We used to all go every Wednesday, so I was surprised I didn’t see you there. It was a great game; the home team came from behind to win by three points at the buzzer.”

“Of course not,” Don said. “Jenny used to go to the games, too. Then she broke up with me. After four years together. I still can’t believe she dumped me for Frank.”

“Actually, I saw her there with Frank. They looked pretty happy – holding hands and laughing.”

Example 2:
“Hey, Don,” Evan said. “I didn’t see you at the game last night.”

“Those games just make me think of Jenny,” Don said. “She wasn’t there, was she?”

Evan nodded slowly. “With Frank.”

Personally, I’d rather avoid the info dump in the first example. And I might even like something more elusive than the second example – revealing the relationship with Jenny through subtle hints. And I might give Frank a last name of Khan so that Don can scream it in frustration (yes, I’m kidding).

Besides allowing the reader to think, omission also prevents unnatural dialog. For example, if a story begins with two characters meeting at a football game, they wouldn’t say, “Well, here we are at the game that we planned on attending three weeks ago.” Work those details in, if necessary, through other means. Don’t slap the reader in the face with it: “Here, you need this information!”

Some things are better left unsaid, especially details that can be revealed subtly. Trust your readers. Trust your readers. Trust your readers.

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