Understatement. Sometimes, it’s just the thing.
At certain points in your novel, in an effort to be explicit, you might be creating barriers of words that keep the reader from fully entering the story. They shouldn’t have to sift through the rubble of your exploded verbiage to find what it’s really about. Understatement invites your reader’s active participation by leaving small gaps into which the she can insert understanding from the vast warehouse of images in her own mind.
The authors we’ll look at today do an amazing job of guiding the reader toward a specific experience and then standing out of his way while he digests it.
Understated emotional peaks
Ron McLarty uses this mad skill to wonderful effect in his novel, The Memory of Running, right from the get-go. In the opening scenes, Smithy Ide is saying a poignant good-bye to his parents, who were in a horrific car crash on the way home from the family’s annual vacation and then whisked to different hospitals.
Smithy is a 43-year-old supervisor at a toy factory who makes sure the arms on SEAL action figures are assembled palms in. He describes himself as “fat and drunk and cigarette-stained.” This does nothing to endear me to him. I have a rough history with alcoholics, hate cigarettes, and was born to a fat-obsessed mother.
But then McLarty lays in an important line of subtext: “I would have given my car to anyone, right there, if I could have been sober.”
Bloody hell. Got me.
We’re only on page 19 when Smithy stands beside his dying mother. He listens to her little breaths. Puffs, really. He pushes her thin hair onto the pillow with his fingers, and says:
McLarty doesn’t make the mistake of telling the reader his character feels helpless. He doesn’t have to—that one generic word oozes with helplessness that the reader can’t help but feel.
Note that while McLarty uses a generic word, he has not relied upon a generic feeling. Many openings at deathbeds and funerals fail to move readers because the writer assumes that all readers will feel sad at such occasions. Not so. Death is often a tragedy but it can also be a relief, a payback, a disappointment, a reward, or a simple closing of a door. McLarty succeeds here because he uses every blessed one of those first 19 pages to create within Smithy a mountain of character, so when he balances that one word “there’ on the summit, we’ll know that Smithy’s powerlessness extends to every aspect of his life.
If McLarty can pull this off in the first 19 pages, you can certainly use the entirety of accumulating subtext in your novel to say volumes in its one final image.
“Rosebud,” anyone? [Read more…]