Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Tip of the Iceberg

I felt myself being absorbed by this beautiful artwork displayed on the wall near our booth in Mimi's Cafe recently.  It is Philip Craig's Lavender Fields. I put my fork down to study it.

I love his choice of color and the peace this scene exudes. You can almost smell the lavender breath, see the bees flying their dance. I want to follow that row straight into the villa in the distance, find a chair and watch the people go by.  The muted, indistinct edges of color invite me to connect the dots in my own way, drawing me in, like I was participating in the painting of it, interpreting it for myself.  It's not work - but discovery.

I think this is why I like reading the style of writing that Hemingway termed in his iceberg theory.  (at least, a variation of it)  He said, "If a writer of prose knows enough about 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 iceberg is due to only the one-eighth of it being above water."

Okay, that's saying a mouthful.  So we don't take the reader by the hand and explain everything. We trust readers to get what we're saying. I like what Les Edgerton adds about the iceberg theory in his book, Finding Your Voice. "The writer should provide the "bones" or skeleton of the story and the reader furnishes the flesh..."  To do otherwise dumbs down the writing and makes for boring, passive reading. In other words, it makes lazy readers of us.

I like something in between the minimalist Hemingway style and the style of writing that doesn't quite trust the reader. I like a wee bit of flesh on the bones, as in this passage from David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars. This scene comes at the end of the first chapter, so we haven't had time to learn about the characters. (I've shortened it for brevity) The local reporter has been sent to cover a murder trial in their small coastal community:

At ten minutes before nine that morning, Ishmael has spoken with the accused man's wife on the second floor of the Island County courthouse..."Are you all right?" he'd said to her, but she'd responded by turning away from him.  "Please," he'd said.  "Please Hatsue."...

 "Go away," she'd said in a whisper, and then for a moment she'd glared..."Go away," repeated Hatsue Miyamoto.  Then she'd turned her eyes, once again, from his.  

"Don't be like this," said Ishmael.

"Go away," she'd answered.

That's how their scene ends. We deduce that Ishmael and Hatsue have known each other but we don't know what their relationship has been. We know her husband's life may be at stake. They speak with a veiled intimacy that is implied rather than explained. It's the tip of the iceberg, and we discover what lies beneath as the story unfolds.

I think this is why I dread the unavoidable information dump that happens with a book series.  The writer must bring the new reader up to speed in some fashion, and I guess there's no graceful way around rocking the iceberg.

How about you?  How much flesh do you want on story bones?  Is it work or pleasure? We'd love to hear.


Susie Finkbeiner said...

This is a great post, Debbie. Thank you!

I am a bit on the minimalist side of writing. Years of writing 2,000 word short stories has done that to me. I'd much rather spend my words on the story than on describing cheekbones or a chair. Unless those details really add to the story.

For me, reading a story that gives me every inch of detail is just too much work. I don't enjoy it. I skip it to get to the meat of the story.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thanks, Susie. I think it's an art to keep the tip of the iceberg above the waterline just far enough to engage the reader and keep them engaged.

Latayne C Scott said...

As much as I don't enjoy Hemingway, as I've aged I am beginning to really appreciate how he communicated with simple (and few) words.

I recently read The Snows of Kilmanjaro (actually I listened to it on tape) and was startled by the power of such sparse words.

Marian said...

I love it when the author puts in just enough to make me feel smart because I get what's happening underneath the waterline. By the way, that's one of the reasons I enjoyed reading Paint Chips by Susie Finkbeiner.

Megan Sayer said...

Now that's a fascinating observation Debbie, I've learned a lot from that one. There's a recently-deceased and much-admired Australian author who wrote tomes so thick you could build a small fence with them, and much as people love him, his work dribes me batty. This, I think, is the reason why. He describes everything! In contrast, mine is pretty minimalist.
I'm reading a novel at the moment that I love and can't put down, but again I'm skipping huge chunks just because I don't care about all those details, just tell me what happened next!

Patti Hill said...

This is golden, Debbie. I slash and burn my way through revision, hoping to get to the place where my reader will know how smart they are. It's work to achieve the clarity without burying the reader in details. Thanks for the reminder.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Latayne, I have enjoyed some of his books and put down others when I couldn't figure out what was going on. I could tell something was implied, but what?
Marian, good point. It does make us feel smart like we're on the same page as the author. And I'm so glad you enjoyed reading Susie's book!
Megan, I lean to the minimalist side when I write, also. I don't know which would be worse - having to add words to achieve a certain word count or having to cut it.
Patti, your 'controlled burn' has just the right effect. :-)

Katherine Scott Jones said...

A timely post. I was just today considering how to achieve this balance you speak of. As I mature as a writer, I'm learning less is more. I think of Anita Shreve as a minimalist writer who uses spare (but lovely) prose and trusts her readers.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Katherine, I agree. I enjoy Anita Shreve's books. Great example!