The other day I was chatting on Facebook about books and got into a discussion about The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne. * Spoiler alert – for anyone who hasn’t read it and wants to, don’t read any further * And it got me thinking about the power of not just what is written, but what is left out.
I was a wreck after finishing The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. It took me a full half hour before I could stop crying, and to this day, despite being someone who regularly re-reads favourite books, I can’t bring myself to touch that novel again. It’s so powerful that it still haunts me. The whole story is beautifully written, but the ending…it is a masterpiece. Very clean, very simple, and perfectly captures the childish naivety of the narrator – and that is where the power lies.
As readers, we already know the horror of what lay in concentration camps, we’ve heard the graphic tales, seen the horrific pictures, wept over the vile senselessness of it all. What Boyne did was take all of that away. He didn’t describe any of that, instead he simply has the children holding hands as they walk into what the reader knows is their doom, but that the characters have no clue of. It is so incredibly clever to leave the readers filling in the gaps this way, because what we imagine is far worse than anything he could write.
It is always tempting when writing to really spell things out. New authors are especially prone to it, thinking that if they don’t really hammer the point home and get in every single detail then what they are trying to say may be lost on the reader. Not true. The imagination of the reader is a powerful tool, and one the author mustn’t be afraid to utilize.
In my latest novel, Flowers For The Dead, there are very few graphic scenes. For all the main character, Adam, stalks women and cuts off their lips, the images are hinted at only. Yet reviews say again and again how scary the book is, how it makes readers constantly look over their shoulder, or check the doors are locked. A line here or there, a glimpse of waiting horror, a subtle increase in the tension, was all it took to terrify them.
So remember the power of NOT writing something. Always resist the urge to over describe. And if it doubt, leave it out.