Sunday, March 8, 2009

The "Other" Parts

inference--an assumption or conclusion reached by a character in a story or by a reader reading the story; a reaction or decision which is possibly correct, made without direct, unassailable evidence; a conclusion formed by a character or a reader based on past experience; the use of circumstantial evidence; arriving at a conclusion or decision based entirely upon a character's experience and subsequently based on the reader's experience.

As the twenty-first century shifts into gear (See pathetic fallacy), one highly visible fork in the narrative road is the inferential one, in which the reader is left with more leeway to assume such matters as agenda, intent, and volition of characters as well as what actually happened in a narrative. Did they or didn't they? Were they, or not? Such words as ambiguity and elliptical come forth, particularly in the short story.

A highly prolific and versatile writer, Elmore Leonard, speaking at publishing conventions (ABA, Book Expo, etc) and writers' conferences (notably Santa Barbara, CA) has often been quoted expressing his working approach to story, which in essence is to write only the parts that interest him, while leaving out the "other" parts, it being understood that "other" means descriptions and scenes that don't directly involve him. By extension, Leonard could be interpreted to advocate as a part of the revision process the removal of anything he considered unnecessary explanation, whether in narrative (which includes description) or dialogue.

Contemporary writers as diverse as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Tobias Wolff, George Saunders, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Haruki Murikami may be argued to write with the inferential less-is-more approach, yet none of these is arguably a minimalist. There is among them a common thread of trust. The interesting questions to consider is the applications of the trust: Do they trust the reader? Themselves? The reader and themselves?

A storyteller in the twenty-first century is well advised to read these writers as well as writers of past eras and, indeed, new writers on their own path of self-discovery, keeping in mind choices to be made about how much the reader truly needs to know.

Hint: Some writers of nonfiction are often seduced by the need to use all their research in a particular project, resulting in their project telling the potential reader more about the subject than the reader wants to know. In similar fashion, some writers of fiction may be tempted to explain to the reader more about their characters and the motives of those characters than the reader wants to know.

Added hint: Because of its subjective base, the result of fiction is greater than the sum of its parts; the goal of storytelling is the evocation of that greater effect. Evoke rather than describe. Encourage the reader to infer. The reader would rather discover his misapprehension in the face of surprise behavior from the characters than be told he was wrong by the author.

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