There is one piece of writing advice I hear so often it feels worn smooth as a river pebble. Show, don’t tell. Good advice, no doubt about it. Vivid scenes are always more compelling than a slab of exposition. But there are times when showing isn’t necessary, or even desirable. Sometimes it’s better to keep things to yourself.
This may sound strange. As a writer, your usual aim is to transmit your thoughts into the brains of your readers by way of text on a page. You strive to paint a perfect word-picture. But here are four reasons you might deliberately choose to leave part of the canvas blank.
1. Build Suspense
One reason to withhold information from your readers is to build suspense for a later revelation. You show just enough to make it clear you are keeping something back, something important, something secret. Naturally, readers want to know what the secret is.
The attorney paused in the doorway, then strode back to his desk. He picked up a small wooden box and slipped it into his jacket pocket with nicotine-stained fingers before hurrying from the room.
Later, when you reveal the hidden thing, when the lawyer opens the box in a crowded courtroom, your readers experience a satisfying Ah-ha! moment.
But sometimes what you hide stays hidden.
2. Leave Them Guessing
Remember the mysterious briefcase in Pulp Fiction? Something glows from inside each time the case is opened. We see the reactions of different characters at various stages of the movie, a mix of awe and wonder, but the contents of the briefcase are never revealed.
There are all kinds of theories about what Maresellus Wallace had in that briefcase. Google it. You’ll see what I mean. Over twenty years later people still speculate about that one point. Quentin Tarantino is reported to have said the contents are whatever you want it to be. Sometimes the most effective thing to do is leave a detail secret and let your readers decide for themselves.
J.J. Abrams is no milquetoast in this regard. In fact, he gave a TED talk about the benefit of keeping secrets in your story that you never reveal. He calls it the mystery box. People are drawn to the mystery more than they are to the answer. Mystery sparks possibilities in the mind of your reader.
3. Paint a Bigger Picture
Another reason to include hints without ever explaining their meaning is to give the impression of a larger fictional world with events already in play, just outside the frame of your story. To call on J.J. Abrams again, there are several notable examples of this in the latest Star Wars movie.
“People are drawn to the mystery more than they are to the answer. Mystery sparks possibilities in the mind of your reader.”
Take the opening scene. A resistance pilot meets with an old man we are told is an ally of Princess Leia. The old man gives the pilot the equivalent of a USB drive and says something about setting things right. Then stormtroopers arrive to crash the party, and the story hurtles onwards.
Who was the old man? How did he get the space-age USB drive? What is he trying to set right? We never find out. Even though the USB drive (or the map it holds) is the MacGuffin most of the movie revolves around, the old man is never mentioned again. His few lines cleverly serve to set this movie in a broader, ongoing story. They hint at things that have happened, without making the narrative flabby with backstory.
4. Use Negative Space
There is a character in The Owl Service, by Alan Garner, who makes a huge impact on the story without appearing in a single scene. She exists solely through interactions with the other characters, always out of frame. It’s like hearing a splash and watching ripples spread across the surface of a pond, but never seeing the stone as it hit the water. Sometimes you keep something hidden to create negative space in your story, which your readers fill with their imagination.
Another example that springs to mind is Dracula, by Bram Stoker. After Jonathan Harker makes his escape from Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, the infamous vampire travels to England. From that point onwards, Dracula exists in negative space. We see his effects on other characters, but he doesn’t make an appearance himself until close to the climax. Dracula is a sinister force, all the more chilling for not being seen.
Ernest Hemingway described it well. He was a believer in showing over telling, but also knew when hiding was better than showing.
“If a writer of prose 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.”
I’m editing at the moment, and often I find I’m removing direct references to leave things as hints. Can you think of other examples where a story works better for having something kept secret from the reader?