Zen and the Art of Withholding Information
By Becky Tuch
Not too long ago I wrote a short story about a man whose son had died in a drunk driving accident. My hero played softball in the park, had coffee with a friend, and cooked food at a family reunion. Although he, Sam, was narrating his story in first person, never once did he allude to the fact that he’d had a teenage son who had passed away. Never did he give any indication at all that he was suffering from some incomprehensible trauma, or that he was carrying any guilt. The only reference to Sam’s loss came near the end of the story, when his other son asked him about the accident. Sam quickly got angry and said, “I don’t want to talk about it!” That was that.
Why did I think it was a good idea to write a story this way? For one thing, I must have thought I was being clever. “Oh!” my imagined reader was supposed to say at the moment of The Big Reveal. “How complex this character is! How little I understood of Sam’s past until now! How so very touching!”
Instead, the people who read this story reacted more with a confused, “Huh?” And, “Why are we only learning about his son now?” And, “Am I supposed to believe Sam is really grieving? (Because I don’t.)”
Why else did I write the story this way? Well, aside from thinking myself dashingly clever, I also suspect I was a bit of a coward. The mere thought of losing a child to drunk driving—how could I possibly let my mind entertain that? How could I even begin to articulate that experience? Though it might have seemed do-able when idly envisioning the story, in the actual practice of writing I was too terrified to inhabit Sam’s consciousness in any realistic way.
Thus, rather than go deeper into Sam’s inner life, I skirted around it. I told myself I was building up to The Big Reveal. I told myself that Sam was a stoic person who probably wouldn’t talk about his feelings. I convinced myself that he was so out of touch with his own emotions that he had blocked out all memories of his son. I did everything short of giving Sam amnesia, just to avoid having to write about this difficult issue.
Now, here’s the rub: In real life, it is true that we do not like to think about difficult parts of our past. It is true that if someone tries to talk to us about painful things, we might very well snap and say, “I don’t want to talk about it!” Certainly it’s true that people have all kinds of relationships with their emotions, ranging from in tune to out of touch, open to closed off.
Perhaps your protagonist is not the kind of person who blabbers about every feeling he’s ever had to anyone who will listen. Still, in order to convince your reader of his/her pain, in order to get your reader to empathize with him/her, you will not want to withhold key facts about your character’s life. Nor will you want to withhold major aspects of your character’s emotional experience. Take it from me–your readers will only feel cheated and confused.
Whatever your character’s level of connection to his/her own emotional life, here are some strategies I have found useful:
Have your character treasure some item/object/photograph.
Is there a certain item that can be used to cue the reader as to your character’s emotional state? Your character doesn’t need to go into a long monologue the second he sees a photograph. (That might be a little corny.) But a scene can be shaped around some treasured item. Suppose, for example, my character Sam carried a picture of his son in his wallet. Now suppose he lost his wallet. The person who finds it could see the picture and say, “Cute kid. How old is he?” When Sam snatches his wallet back, he’d say, “Thanks for returning it,” and storm off in agitation. The reader will feel Sam’s grief from this unsettling interaction around the treasured item.
Put your character in emotional-trigger situations.
Are there places that become emotional triggers for your character? If so, place your protagonist there as often as possible! In my own story, I missed a lot of opportunities to have Sam’s grief bubble to the surface. But one thing I did do right is to put him in a situation where he is driving his car in the rain late at night. He can’t help but think of his son here and everything he does and thinks is a clear signal to the reader that he is in a terrible state emotionally. He begins to scream at his friend in the passenger seat and insists that they pull over to wait out the storm. At the same time, he imagines if this was what it was like for his son when he lost control of the car. Additionally, the lights of oncoming cars glare into his eyes. Here Sam is forced to confront this painful part of his past, and he is in actual physical danger as he tries to drive through the storm. For this reason, my readers all agreed this was where the drama really got going. (Unfortunately, it was the last five pages of a thirty-five page story.)
Show your character’s unresolved relationships.
Are there people with whom your character still needs to make amends? Perhaps there was someone s/he wants an apology from. Maybe there is a person s/he feels that s/he still must apologize to, but doesn’t yet have the nerve. Or, as Anne Tyler does so beautifully in The Accidental Tourist, perhaps the unresolved relationship is the one right in front of the character’s face: the marriage that is shattered after the loss of a son. My own story would be much improved if I had thought more about Sam’s present relationships and the people with whom he must make amends.
Let your character obsess.
In fiction, nothing beats good old obsessive thoughts. While your character might not outwardly express his feelings, inwardly he might trace and retrace each moment of a particular event or experience, wondering what went wrong and what he could have done differently. You could show the disconnect between what he thinks and what he expresses by having him thinking about something but never admitting that such concerns are on his mind. Or, if you are writing in third person, you have the advantage of creating distance between the narrator and your character. Thus he might not even be fully aware of how obsessive he is actually being. If you want to see obsessive thinking executed to perfection, read Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace.
Ultimately, your readers want to know exactly who your character is and what your character is going through. Intimacy with fictional characters is, afterall, one of the great scrumptious pleasures of reading novels and short stories. Most readers want to know every (relevant) thing that a character thinks, feels, and wants and why s/he thinks, feels, and wants it. As writers, it is our job to give them nothing less.
Becky Tuch is the Founding Editor of The Review Review.