Sunday, December 27, 2020


     “This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times...before the Empire.” – Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope

     By and large, the Star Wars movies are unsubtle. They’re mostly exercises in special effects, with a little dialogue woven in to make it seem as if they tell a story more involved than just “Get ‘em!” But in the snippet of dialogue above, George Lucas does something every fiction writer must know how to do.

     With only a few words, Lucas evokes in the viewer’s mind a picture of the times before the Galactic Empire and the ongoing rebellion. (Granted, Guinness’s excellent delivery helped to paint that picture.) He doesn’t have to say much – and it’s to Lucas’s credit that he refrains from saying more than necessary. That’s how a skilled writer gives his reader a taste of the backstory.

     Evocation of this sort can also be used to point the reader toward the future, though that’s called foreshadowing and usually points toward events that will be part of the story being written. In either usage, the writer’s aim is to broaden his fictional landscape without actually painting in the regions along the margins. The practice serves the reader by stimulating his imagination, making him a co-creator of his entertainment. It serves the writer by allowing him to concentrate the much greater portion of his efforts on the events in story-present.

     Evocation – hinting – is an important skill. Ask any sixteen-year-old girl whose heart is set on getting that one special boy to ask her to the dance.

     Evocative writing is especially important to the short-story writer...and here we come to what has it in my thoughts today.

     I turn out the occasional short story, as readers of Liberty’s Torch are surely aware. Rather frequently, a reader will suggest that I complete the story: i.e., to fill in the events before and / or after what I actually depicted. Some will ask, in effect, “Where’s the rest of it?” as if it had been scissored out of a more extensive narrative.

     Such responses occasionally give me some agita. Should I write more about this? Does it deserve to become a full-length novel? What is there that I get that my readers don’t? And yes, on occasion I’ve been moved to take a short tale – “Sweet Things” is the most recent case – and expand it to a greater length. So I understand and, sometimes at least, sympathize sufficiently with my readers’ desire to “see the rest of it” to actually write “the rest of it.”

     But at least as often, I decide to “leave it where it lies.” That was the case with “The Fearless Man,” which came into being entirely because of the JPG I posted at the end. Most of my short pieces are unlikely ever to be extended. What causes a story to be of one or the other sort is hard to say, but I think that whether I can sense that I got the reader to imagine the backstory is a major part of it.

     Of only one thing am I perfectly sure: a reader’s expressed desire to “see the rest of it” is a high compliment. It means I wrote evocatively enough to rev up his imagination, and it pleased him enough that he wants to see how accurate his imaginings are. It warms me greatly, as the short tales I produce and post here are usually meant as relief valves for me, to deflect me from thinking about my current hopeless novel-under-development.

     And it’s all about hinting: alluding evocatively to a tale you’ve deliberately left untold, such that the reader will “write it in his head.” Any sixteen-year-old girl will tell you!


Bear Claw Chris Lapp said...

That's why the book is almost always better than the movie. You see the story in your head at the same time with all its elaborations you create making it different for every ready.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Which leads to an interesting second question: Do novelizations -- books written from the movie rather than the other way around -- suffer from the reader having already seen the film? Is the novelizer's job made harder by the prior existence of the movie -- and is his "artistic freedom," whatever that means in this context, greatly impeded thereby?