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Finding stuff in the spaces between things
A long time ago I read something in an essay by the playwright and movie director David Mamet, and it stuck with me. It concerns how narrative is constructed or evoked in film and though I can’t find the book right now to quote it, the insight boils down to this: if you show an audience two images, without describing any connection between them, they will fill in the gaps — and in doing so often tell themselves a better story than you could, or at least one that they feel more invested in.
A trivial example: you could write a long sequence of scenes where two people meet, fall in love, have an argument (including the blow-by-blow of the problem afflicting their union), split up, and then are apart. Or you could simply show a still photograph of two people in each other’s arms; followed by another of the woman sitting in a room by herself, looking sad. By themselves, they’re merely images. One after another, even when uninflected by comment, they seem to tell a story.
This much is obvious, but what’s interesting is that the audience is not only capable of joining these dots, but the process psychologically involves them far more compellingly in the story than you spelling it out for them would. Swap the two same photos around, and the story’s completely different — though the images remain exactly the same.
Of course, as writer, you’re choosing the order. But the audience is telling the story.
It works in prose, too. In one of James Lee Burke’s novels featuring Dave Robicheaux, there’s a scene in which the hero’s teenage daughter explains at length why she needs a horse. Her father adamantly declares that ain’t going to happen, for reasons. The next thirty pages or so switch back to whatever gnarly investigation the detective is pursuing at the time, and we forget all about it. Then suddenly at the beginning of the next chapter, there Robicheaux is, on a farm, with his daughter, in the process of buying a horse. The subject has not been mentioned in the meantime. There is no discussion of why he’s changed his mind. Instead of being led through the internal process, we’re watching him from the outside, as we do with other people in real life.
This struck me as powerfully effective when I read it. In that gap between scenes, between those narrative dots, is a wealth of potential detail Burke didn’t have to write — trusting us to fill it in, in the process investing it with resonance from our own lives. When we do this, we truly feel it and believe it. I wonder if this relates to accessing the deeply-ingrained human tendency to look for patterns, including within our own behavior: engaging that function of our minds to do the work makes the transition feel far more personal than simply telling the audience what to feel.
There’s an obvious piece of writing advice here. Don’t feel you have to lead the audience by the hand from beat to beat of the story. They’re not dumb, and not only can you waste a lot of screen time in the process — or force the reader to slog through a chunk of prose to get where they’ve probably already guessed we’re going — but you’re missing out on the opportunity to hand some of the job to them, which often results (paradoxically) in them feeling they’ve been told a deeper and richer story.
It’s not just between scenes, either. It strikes me that the old screenwriting rule of thumb, to enter the scene as late as possible and get out as soon as you can, is related: effectively you’re expanding the space between the scenes. Less is usually more.
There was a beautiful example of this in episode 403 of Succession, one of the best-written TV shows in forever, which we watched last night. The writer/s managed to beautifully and credibly evoke a subtle but major sea change in the relationship between two characters by dotting in a couple of moments over the course of an hour: scenes that didn’t relate explicitly to their relationship, were in fact about something else entirely (and doing other valuable character-building work), and took up maybe forty seconds of screen time.
That’s how you do it — not by steering the viewer through ten minutes of dogged conversation. Because remember: a movie itself is made up of thousands of still images. Through persistence of vision, we fill in those gaps, too.
It strikes me this morning that this extends to other fields. The philosophers I’ve benefited from most over time are Nietzsche, and especially Jean Baudrillard. One of the reasons for this is their willingness to explore some of their thought epigrammatically. Nietzsche had his Maxims & Interludes and portions of other works. Baudrillard produced a series of five slim volumes titled Cool Memories in which he simply presents observations, anything from a long paragraph down to a single sentence, leaving you do figure out what you’re going to do with them. I don’t believe he did this because he was too lazy to build these jottings up into one of his (dense and sometimes hard-to-love) canonical works, any more than I think my affection for these books is (purely) down to the fact that the longer treatises can honestly be a bit “French intellectual” and tough to understand, and my lips get tired from sounding out all the words.
I think it’s more than any “grand unified theory” of thought is doomed to failure, not least because the job of every other philosopher out there is to prove that you’re dumb and wrong and that their unified theory is much smarter. It’s also that the connective tissue required to join the thoughts, all that scaffolding, is often weaker and much less interesting — and far less likely to be, in and of itself, “right”. It’s that matter of leaving gaps, spaces for the reader or thinker to fill in. After reading a chapter of the average work of philosophy I’m often left feeling tired and a bit confused and wanting a beer. One of Baudrillard’s little snippets can (and often has) had me staring into space for twenty minutes, thinking it through, connecting it to dots of my own. Several have become one of the foundation stones of entire novels.
Sense lives in the gaps. Our humanity does, too. Something I’ve been noticing for decades — having come across the observation in A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander’s fascinating analysis of how people exist in space — is the function of columns in architecture. If you have a great big room, it can feel empty and too large. Take that same space and put a few columns in, it immediately feels far more homely. We understand it better and feel more comfortable there. If it’s a public space, we relax. If it’s domestic, suddenly where we know where to put the sofa and chairs. Even very slender uprights achieve the effect.
The spaces between things humanize. As soon as we’ve got gaps to live in, we feel more at home, and more ourselves. Who knows, maybe time itself works that way too. An endless series of moments, and it’s only us who turn them into reality.
Living in the stillness between the dots.