Revealing the Vivid Unexpected
Part One: The Secret of Saying Too Little
Suffice it to say that last week's memo had precisely the effect I had anticipated.
We'll speak no more about it.
I will not dissect my own writing like a formaldehyde frog in the dim light of your monitor. But I will, for your benefit, gently press my scalpel into a paragraph written by England's brilliant Roy Clarke:
“The thing about growing up is that you get fewer scabs on your knees, but more internal injuries. Do you remember the day when that little yellowhammer flew straight at the window? You picked it up. It had a drop of blood on its beak. Identical color to ours. Just one drop, like a bright bead. And then there were all those brightly plumed kids who left school, flying cheerfully and didn't get far. Ran smack into World War II. Little Tommy Naylor lying in Africa somewhere, blood on his beak. Identical color to ours.”
– monologue of Peter Sallis as Norman Clegg, Last of the Summer Wine; Getting Sam Home, (1983) written by Roy Clarke
We're not told the yellowhammer collided with the window. Neither do we read the words “dead” or “death.” Yet we know the little bird hit the window and died because of the line, “You picked it up.”
We come to this conclusion on our own. This technique of “revelation by inference” pulls us into the narrative by making us fill in its blanks.
Next the author shares a memory, a vividly phrased mental image: “Just one drop, like a bright bead.”
The yellow cone of a bird's beak adorned with a glistening sphere of red is a sadly beautiful combination of color and shape. But we, as readers, continue to hang on to the opening statement about “growing up.” We await closure of that thought.
Clarke moves us from birds to persons – and childhood to adulthood – through the metaphorical phrase “brightly plumed kids… flying cheerfully.”
And then he closes the circle:
“Little Tommy Naylor lying in Africa somewhere, blood on his beak.”
Clarke has taken us from the scraped knees of childhood to a dead Tommy Naylor in the space of just a few seconds, our minds filling in the blanks along the way. Little Tommy never did grow old. He was one of us.
“Identical color to ours.”
And his death could have been our own.
Read the passage again and witness the brilliant restraint. Roy Clarke flashes just a few slides onto the movie screen of our mind and we fill the gaps between them. We conclude:
(1.) A yellowhammer is a bird.
(2.) It hit the window and died.
(3.) Tommy Naylor was a schoolmate.
(4.) Tommy grew up and went to war.
(5.) Tommy died in Africa in WWII
But none of this is told to us directly. Yet we know it just as surely as if it had been.
I am boring and pedantic when I say too much.
I am mysterious and deep when I say too little.
To hold the attention of intelligent people you must require them to fill in the blanks in your narrative. Here's another good example:
“There were ripe blackberries in the hedgerows and, as the shadows lengthened, fox cubs skittering at the edge of the fields. A few miles on and the evening had almost shaded to night, but he could smell the sea now and he imagined that he could hear it, sucking and surging on the Dorset shingle. This was the ghost time of day when the souls of the dead flickered at the edges of men's sight and when good folk hurried home to their fire and to their thatch and to their bolted doors. A dog howled in one of the villages.”
– Bernard Cornwell, Vagabond, p.164
Have you ever known someone who took too long to say too little?
Have you ever been someone who took too long to say too little?
Yes, I am feeling literary. It happens to me in the fall. I hope you don't mind.
Ciao for Niao,
Roy H. Williams
“When they read to me poems that have been taught to them in school… they have been taught hackneyed lines, absurd rhythms, cheap rhymes. There are times when I could cry with disappointment.”
– Russian poet Kornei Chukovsky in 1963 speaking of yesterday's schoolchildren, the parents of the children of today.
If you'd like to read a good book during the holidays, here are three I highly recommend.
For those who are serious about the craft of writing: see if you can count the number of gaps in last week's memo. How many things are you led to conclude that you're never directly told?