Thursday, 19 June 2008

What's left unsaid

I take a great delight in the charming peculiarities of my friends. Small comments and actions can be such a window into someone's personality or life. Below are two examples. Names and faces are changed to protect the unwary.

Recently one friend told me about her family 'big book of health' and another about how all her family 'had a special place for their shoes' when they came in from a walk and then added how angry she was her husband never used his.

Friend number one, I assume, wants to be in charge of her own health. Being at an age where she is rapidly becoming older than the average doctor at her GP surgery, she wants to be able to question the suitably qualified, but often young, hurried and inexperienced experts. She is an extremely sensible person and this attitude seems in keeping with her over all persona. It also gives me a lovely picture of her pouring over this giant book of health, which is possibly almost as big as she is.

With Friend number two you don't have to know her to understand. It's the frustrated statement of a woman whose communication with her husband is breaking down. She's talking about shoes, but it's actually about her marriage.

In both instances it's what is inferred that is important. Every textbook ever created on writing says 'show not tell' - and this is often used as an excuse for labored description or over using very mundane dialogue. ('Hello' rarely _needs_ to be written in prose or play.) But if you listen to the very, very best dialogue it isn't someone speaking their feelings or giving a direction, it's about what they say without saying it. 

With my Friend number one her comment has its biggest impact when you know some of her backstory. Friend number two's comment is immediately accessible.

Inference is a skill we develop as children - something my six year old is just learning to do, but once we learn it, we do it all the time. Allowing readers to infer what is going on pays tribute to their intelligence. It engages their brain and makes them more interested in what is going on. As humans we are programmed to make sense of things, to look for meaning and even when we're seeking entertainment we can't stop. Nothing is more boring than simply being told what is happening - not least of all because real people don't communicate directly. Hardly any of us are capable of saying exactly what we mean especially when emotions are involved - just like Friend number two.

1 comment:

rdi said...

Some nice insights there.

What's also interesting (to me) is how reading this gives us insights into you :-)