The unspoken (and unwritten) word
Hi. I’m filling in for Sarah, who’s eloped for a weekend away from people with her husband (who clearly, it seems, doesn’t qualify as people). In order to let her sleep late this Sunday, I’m writing this in her stead. If it helps, just think of me without the beard, somewhat thinner, and wearing a dress. (Don’t tell my wife!)
In working on my latest book, I’ve been struck once again by how much we unconsciously bring to the table as writers. Due to our own background, experiences and ‘formation’ (for want of a better word), we make certain assumptions about things that are unspoken and instinctive. When we write, those assumptions carry over into our world-building, characters, dialog, etc. – but the trouble is, someone who doesn’t come from the same environment that spawned us won’t necessarily realize the assumptions are there. Will the book work when parts of it (sometimes large parts) aren’t elaborated, leaving the reader to guess what inspired or prompted certain actions or dialog or developments?
I think there are several ways of looking at it. The first is that readers come to books with their own background, experiences and ‘formation’, and will supply what the author doesn’t provide by instinctively ‘filling in the gaps’ from their own world view. This may produce comprehension that’s rather different from what was intended, but there will be at least some degree of understanding.
(Of course, this can backfire… I remember in high school studying Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Having [by then] a well-developed sense of the ribald, thanks to a father who’d served in the Royal Air Force through the war and wasn’t afraid to tell his son about it, I could identify the sexual innuendo sprinkled throughout the play [see Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra in her barge for some of the most thinly veiled pornography in Elizabethan England]. However, our English teacher [an older and very proper lady] would have been utterly scandalized at the thought that her beloved Shakespeare could have meant anything of the kind. In this case, her authority meant that her world view took precedence, whether or not Shakespeare would have agreed – and whether I liked it or not.)
Another approach is for us, as writers, to recognize that some things have been left unsaid, and deliberately choose to keep them that way. Instead of explaining why certain views are held or espoused, or certain actions are necessary, we simply lay them out as given facts and don’t try to persuade or convince the reader of why we think they’re important. If the reader accepts them, all well and good; if not, they can supply their own perspective within which to interpret them. I don’t like this approach, but that’s me. Other authors use it all the time, and it seems to work for them.
Then there’s the ‘infodump’ approach; putting everything in so that the reader can see exactly why certain things are important, what gave rise to them, and what the characters propose to do with, to or about them. David Weber is perhaps the principal proponent of this approach in modern SF. Personally, I find it a turn-off; I’d rather not have all that ‘backstory’. However, as Weber’s extraordinary and ongoing popularity demonstrates, that’s not a universal opinion by any means. I’ve been accused of ‘infodump’ myself, which I find worrying. I’m working hard to minimize it and build world-view and scene-setting into actions and events rather than paragraphs of description. I’ve still got a long way to go, I’m afraid, before I get it completely right.
How do you handle this conundrum? Let us know in Comments. Are there approaches I haven’t outlined above that work better than those I have? I think we’ll all benefit from sharing our joint and several perspectives.