Beautiful Void: The Importance of Implied Narrative

Image Copyright the BBC

“You have to listen to the notes they’re not playing.”

At some point in your life, whether in reality or on television, you’ve no doubt heard the statement above used to explain a piece of music, usually jazz, that the speaker thinks the assembled audience is not appreciating properly. Obviously you can’t hear noise that isn’t being made, so what could this nonsense possibly mean? In the case of jazz, I couldn’t tell you. I’m not a musician, despite the best efforts of my parents and a number of frustrated tutors. But to the dismay of the aforementioned responsible adults, I am a pretty good writer, and it turns out this over-uttered cliché is actually quite applicable to the art of crafting fiction. That’s right. An important part of writing any story is the tales you don’t tell.

First of all, there is the question of scope. Unless you’re determined to be a Tolkien or Jordan, you can’t write everything. But just because your story needs a beginning, middle and end, that doesn’t mean the world you’ve created does. Whether or not you’re into exposition and epilogues, some things happened before your story, and in all but the most extreme cases, things will continue to happen after. When you talk about people and events that exist beyond the boundaries of the current narrative, it creates the impression that your fictional world continues to exist independently of the reader, which can make it seem more like the real world.

When you talk about people and events that exist beyond the boundaries of the current narrative, it creates the impression that your fictional world continues to exist independently of the reader...

The Wire is a show dense with examples of subtle or unspoken exposition.  Although characters often speak of good times and crimes committed long ago, there are no flashbacks or long soliloquies about life-changing nights. Things happen that hint at the past without explaining it, like Chris Partlow’s reaction to an abusive father or the way Bodie casually informs Cutty that his older brother has “been dead.” A photo on a wall reveals that a dealer called Cheese shares the same last name as foster child Randy Wagstaff. These two characters are never onscreen together and never express any awareness of each other. Is Cheese his father? Big brother? We’ll never know, because the show just drops these reveals at your feet and never examines them again as the narrative plows forward. The viewer is left to wonder on their own.

The key to crafting the perfect untold story is to say just enough to imply a story is there without elaborating too much. Leave a curious blank and the reader’s imagination will race to fill it. Felix Gilman wrote a pair of novels (The Half Made World and The Rise of Ransom City) practically built from narrative implication. In this steampunk Wild West world, every object, person and place has its own story. Among the colorful cast of infamous outlaws there are many more that simply remain mysterious, menacing names. Some are granted superhuman powers by their magic guns, which all have names and legends of their own. They wage a never-ending war against an army of demonic trains that seek to conquer the known world through industry, and even these mute engines of evil have names, their personalities expressed in the different ways they oppress the citizens of their keeps. You can’t read a page without stumbling across references to ancient campaigns and unseen battles, old history books and fragments of local folklore. Cities rise and fall in the space between chapters. Gilman could easily fill another book with all of the stories he left untold, but by letting the reader’s imagination help with the heavy-lifting he is able to expand the world of his story exponentially with a minimum of fuss. It doesn’t have to take six bludgeon-weight novels to make a big, intriguing world for your characters to stumble through. Even if you end up going with the “more is more” approach, it can still be beneficial to leave a few threads dangling in each installment. Then when you call back to them in later episodes you’ll look like the genius who had a plan all along. And after your protagonist has completed the main story arc, you’ll still have a wealth of secondary characters and subplots left to explore.

Details are great, but beware of overdoing it. Remember how cool Darth Vader was when all you knew was that he was a fallen Jedi? Now, how much less cool was it to find out that he basically interned for the Dark Side until he was injured on the job and the Emperor decided to promote him so he wouldn’t sue for damages? If you stoke the audience’s imagination like that, you better have a really good reason for shattering their collective delusions. Exploring the socioeconomics of interstellar trade agreements is not, for the record.

One of the most successful examples of the “too much is never enough” school of storytelling is the long-running British sci-fi show Doctor Who. Even after fifty years and 800+ episodes traveling all of space and time, there are still plenty of tales left untold. Whenever the Doctor recruits a new companion we are teased with incomplete stories of all the trouble he’s been getting into when we weren’t watching, and the companions themselves often talk of off-screen adventures. When the show briefly went off the air, Doctor Who left a narrative gap a decade wide. The Eighth Doctor had only been seen in the abortive TV movie, leaving the rest of his story a big question mark. Dozens of writers would enthusiastically answer it with a deluge of audio dramas, animations, comic books and novels, more than had been produced for any of the previous incarnations of the character. Some of that “supplemental material” even inspired elements of the 2005 revival, like the Last Great Time War that looms ominously in the Ninth Doctor’s past. Battles and atrocities are name-checked but never explained, their importance expressed simply by the reactions of the characters at their mention. All of which set the stage for them to pull the same trick again in the 50th Anniversary Special when it was revealed that a previously unknown incarnation of the Doctor (played by John Hurt) had fought in the Time War, leaving a massive chapter of his life tantalizingly untold. Who knows what wonders are waiting to be discovered in this unexplored story space? If anyone at BBC is reading this, I personally could write about nothing but the Time War for the rest of my life.

An English professor once told me to always write more than what you put in the book. It’s a piece of advice that has stuck with me, and that’s why sometimes I fill an entire journal with notes for a ten-page short story. But just because it can’t all go in the final draft doesn’t mean I can’t leave a few hints that it’s out there, like a treasure hunt for sharp readers. Leaving a part of the canvas blank is a fun way to get your audience to engage with the story and make it their own. That’s why two people reading the exact same book can still come away with wildly different understandings of the story being told.

Be sure to let me know some of your favorite untold stories and what you think “really” happened in the comments.

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Chris Johnson's picture
Chris Johnson from Burlington NC is reading The Proud Highway January 31, 2014 - 6:11pm

I liked the implication in "Silver Linings Playbook" where Pat admits to his therapist that he'd called the cops about a week before he caught his wife and the history teacher (with tenure) in the shower together, telling the cops that they were plotting against him by embezzling money from the local high school. It seemed like they'd been screwing around for a while and he knew something was off, but he didn't have any evidence, so his delusion filled in the blank for him. Because Nicki would never do that to him, would she? Oh solid reference to The Wire, by the way. Kudos.

Jackson Petito's picture
Jackson Petito January 31, 2014 - 6:54pm

I've always thought that the Venture Brothers does a great job with this, and when they go back and fill something in, it's a real treat for those of us watching closely.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On January 31, 2014 - 7:39pm

Great article. I do the same thing about filling untold numbers of pages of backstory for a simple short story just to be able to imply a larger history without wasting the space to tell it. Of late, True Detective is really doing a lot of that in the best possible sense.

Sanbai's picture
Sanbai from the Midwest is reading The War of Art January 31, 2014 - 8:18pm

Fascinating! You know, it makes me feel soooo good to read this. I often write pages and pages of encyclopedic background for my fantasy stories, and I have small freakouts once a week when I think I haven't properly explained such and such elfish dynasty or the rules of magic or what not. To tell by not telling, only elucidating through character reactions and expressions, is such a relief to hear about - it makes me feel like I can "cheat" a little, by leaving out that long bardic tale of the Crimson Dynastic Struggle and just reference it in passing. Thanks mate, way to take a load off my shoulders! Now, to get back to that hundred year war I was writing about...

Zen Pro's picture
Zen Pro February 1, 2014 - 6:22am

This article reminds of Hemingway's 'Iceberg Theory', or 'Theory of Omission', first articulated in his nonfiction book on bullfighting, 'Death in the Afternoon':

If a writer 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.

In addition, in his memoirs, 'A Moveable Feast', Hemingway recalls how he first put his theory into practice while working on 'Out of Season', a short story in the collection, 'In Our Time,':

I omitted the real end which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything ... and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.

It was this latter quote that came to my mind when writing the script for a short film, Babushka, inspiring me to leave the audience knowing neither how the story ends or how it even got started - hopefully pulling viewers in to do their own dot-joining, using their own life experience to analyse the characters and their motivations. Does this make for a richer form of story-telling? I would like to think so but the proof is in the pudding so we'll have to wait for the film to find out...


Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes February 1, 2014 - 7:07pm

Maybe some of Hemingway's "Iceberg Theory" that Zen Pro mentions rubbed off on his sometime drinking buddy F.Scott Fitzgerald. At 180 pages "The Great Gatsby" is a notoriously short novel. One significant reason for its succinctness is the absence of prose devoted to the Nick Carraway/Jordan Baker romance. Fitzgerald has narrator Nick explain it this way: "-- I thought I loved her. But I am slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires, and I knew that first I had to get myself definitely out of that tangle back  home. I'd been writing letters once a week and signing them: "Love, Nick," and all I could think of was how when a certain girl played tennis, a faint mustache of perspiration appeared on her upper lip. Nevertheless there was a vague understanding that had to be tactfully broken off before I was free." 

Months later on the fateful night of the accident that slew Myrtle Wilson, Jordan Baker places her hand on Nick's arm and invites him to shelter inside the Buchanan mansion. This is how he remembered it: "I'd be damned if I'd go in; I'd had enough of all of them for one day, and suddenly that included Jordan too."

And so ended Nick's fling with the celebrity tennis player. What really happened between them remains a cipher. I posit that the strait-laced Nick wasn't about to link himself to a well known and successful woman who had the potential to make him fodder for the paparazzi of his day and opted to play it safe and marry his mystery midwestern sweetheart after all. 


Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal February 4, 2014 - 11:26am

Very good article- the kind of lesson you see everywhere once you know to look.