Impact of the Unseen

 

Mr. Aniko and I have been watching a series on Netflix. It is marketed as a police procedural, but is more like a soap opera where romantic entanglements are replaced with murderous collusions. The first three seasons were a shifting kaleidoscope of primary suspects projected onto the backdrop of a platonic relationship between two homicide detectives. This isn’t a “buddy cop” sort of gag reel, though, and the two detectives are sufficiently damaged people to make the shocking shift at the end of the third season acceptable, if not entirely believable. The flawed detectives became that which they spent the previous three seasons hunting: they are now killer and accomplice.

Okay. Here’s where a mistake was made.

Netflix is beta testing adding previews/recaps to the start of new seasons of shows. We didn’t want to risk the preview revealing a spoiler, so Mr. Aniko and I stopped it, and went to watch the first episode in season four. Or… more accurately, what we thought was the first episode.

I was impressed by the boldness of the season’s beginning. The writer chose to omit the pivotal hours just after the detectives step outside of the law, instead choosing to drop the audience into the middle of an emotional quagmire, days after the germinating events. Visual media, and especially television, has a nasty habit of spoon-feeding viewers as if the audience possesses neither intelligence nor intuition. I was giddy to be watching a television series that was confident enough in the strength of the story and the emotional acumen of the audience to avoid spoon-feeding. My emotional investment was heightened because the storyteller gave me room to infer certain aspects of the drama from the psychological tone of the detectives. I LOVED it! I was especially blown away by the (apparent) symbolic mirroring provided by a character under suspicion for committing a different crime. This suspect suffers from amnesia, and cannot remember the traumatic events that make our damaged, nervous-breakdown-having-detectives think he’s the murderer. The amnesia of that character mirrored the “amnesia” that I, the audience, had with regard to the detectives’ early actions after committing their grisly crime. It felt like a clever hat-tip by the show’s writer: I know and you know that something happened, and we both know it’s that gap in your knowledge that intrigues and titillates.

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon [4]

In literature, I believe authors choose this technique for the exact reason that a trauma is less a part of any character’s story than their response to that trauma. Minette Walters writes gritty, hyper-real mysteries, the hallmark of which is the omission of the primary trauma. Coy glimpses of the trauma leek through a character’s faulty or obfuscated narrative, but the event itself is not recounted. The unseen carries psychological weight – and a great writer knows this. Walters’s stories are the applied praxis of Hemingway’s iceberg theory. In order for this to work, the writer MUST know exactly what happened in the trauma. Her knowing is what shapes a narrative that supports the reader in intuiting the untold truth. This technique can only be pulled off by a master. Walters is one, but so too is Shirley Jackson. It is an unwritten scene in Hangsaman that sets the trajectory for the rest of the novel, and it is breathtaking.

Remember that mistake I told you about? Well, the preview for the fourth season was actually integrated into the first show for the season. When we stopped the preview and went to what we thought was the first show, we actually jumped to the second show. We have since gone back and watched the first episode. Not surprisingly, we found it to be superfluous. Not only did it not give the audience anything other than details (which I intuited anyways based on the outcome), but it robbed the entire season of the psychological edginess it had when it left some things off screen. Where stories begin alters the emotional impact. Not everything needs to be shown, and in fact, not showing can be more powerful.

As ever,

-aniko

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10 thoughts on “Impact of the Unseen

    • Titles are probably the most difficult part of any writing I do! I’m working on a novella right now that has no name, and won’t have one until the first draft is complete. Naming is difficult…

      Thanks for visiting! 🙂

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      • Yep, America.

        A Horse With No Name

        Song by America

        On the first part of the journey
        I was looking at all the life
        There were plants and birds and rocks and things
        There was sand and hills and rings
        The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz
        And the sky with no clouds
        The heat was hot and the ground was dry
        But the air was full of sound

        I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
        It felt good to be out of the rain
        In the desert you can remember your name
        ‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
        La, la

        After two days in the desert sun
        My skin began to turn red
        After three days in the desert fun
        I was looking at a river bed
        And the story it told of a river that flowed
        Made me sad to think it was dead

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      • The last three lines are heartbreaking, aren’t they? I love how poetry (and poetic lyrics) can distill an emotion into a sprinkling of words. It impresses this prose writer to no end!

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  1. This is how I felt about Mad Max: Fury Road. Miller created a rich world, and then only gave the audience the details they needed to follow the immediate story. He trusted the audience to infer the rest. I loved that movie so much. It changed my storytelling brain forever.

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  2. I too get giddy when I feel that an artist trusts his or her audience enough – has enough faith in their intelligence and intuition – not to spoonfeed them. Sometimes, what is left unsaid adds power to the narrative. Of course, knowing precisely how much to say is tricky, and as a writer this is something I struggle with!

    Fascinating post as ever, Aniko!

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    • You may struggle, but that is not apparent to the reader. 🙂 I do think that it is an art to discover how much narrative to leave unspoken. Sometimes the narrator’s perspective imposes limits to what can be shown, but that’s not quite the same as choosing to omit something the narrator *does* know. I appreciate writers (and screenwriters) who have the confidence to trust the strength of the details they include. It’s far better than a timid writer who shows me every detail!

      Happy writing to you, my friend! XO

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