Hole in the Narrative
December 14, 2010
It’s astonishing. We read our work in progress. Or we have a friend or a teacher read. And they ask us a question about something so simple, so important to the narrative, that we haven’t bothered to include, and it shocks us. Sometimes we defend ourselves: “I wanted the reader to figure it out”; “I thought it was obvious.” Obvious to us, perhaps, but not to our readers.
Our job, as memoirists, is to give the reader enough details to “get” what’s happening. But not to overload the reader with so many details that the narrative gets bogged down. That’s a delicate balance to maintain, to be sure. But in my experience, beginning writers of memoir give the reader too little information to make sense of the narrative. And I think I know why.
Our stories are so familiar to us that we don’t at first understand just how much information the reader needs to make sense of our tales.
We introduce a “character” into the story; we tell the reader his name. But we don’t tell the reader how we know him or who he is. Because we know him, and we know how we know him, we assume the reader knows. The reader doesn’t. (Here’s where knowing how to artfully insert back-story comes in handy. “My old pal Joe, whom I’d known since high school, my drinking buddy since twelfth grade told me I was crazy to think like that” would do the trick on the first introduction of Joe. “Joe told me I was crazy to think like that” doesn’t tell us who Joe is. A hole in the narrative.
We talk about our family’s trips to Atlantic City. We don’t tell the reader how old we were; we don’t tell the writer when the trips took place. A trip to Atlantic City by a ten year old is a different trip from a trip taken by a teenager. And a trip taken in, say 1960 is different from one taken during the heyday of gambling in Atlantic City, different, even, than today. You may know how old you were when you took that trip, and when it was. Your reader doesn’t. And rendering those details – that hole in the narrative – is important.
A writer describes coming to her home, seeing it burn, seeing a woman carried out of that burning building. The narrative proceeds. Until asked, the writer doesn’t indicate that the woman is her mother. Hole in the narrative. The writer knew; she just didn’t think about the fact that her audience didn’t know.
A writer friend of mine describes a glorious scene about two of her relatives who, she says, never leave the house. They live on the second storey of a building. The descriptions are glorious. But when I read, I’m curious. How do these two get food? Do doctors come to them? Do family members visit? How can two women sustain their lives and never go out? Hold in the narrative. And when my writer friend confronted that hole in the narrative, she discovered a family saga of support of this behavior that illuminated much about them, about her family, about how she had not even stopped to question that their behavior was out of the ordinary.
A writer describes her mother coming to pick her up from a grown man’s apartment where she’s fallen asleep, drunk. (She’s a teenager.) She doesn’t describe how her mother learns she’s there. Hole in the narrative. In describing how she learns, the writer could tell us a great deal about the mother, the relationship between the two. Opportunity missed.
A writer describes how a relative has moved to Europe from the U. S. In the next scene, we see the writer with the relative in a doctor’s office in the U. S. The writer hasn’t told us that the relative has returned and why. Hole in the narrative.
A writer describes how her mother comes upon her father hitting her. The scene ends there. The mother’s reaction isn’t described. Hole in the narrative.
Sometimes there’s a hole in our narratives when we don’t want to offend someone who’s still in our lives. When we don’t want to write “true” about what happened, in fear that we’ll offend that person. A very young woman is writing about her pregnancy. She writes about how she isn’t married to the father yet, but she marries him years later. She doesn’t know whether she’ll marry him. She goes to the doctor alone. She lives alone in a tenement on the Lower East Side while she’s pregnant. Here are some holes in this narrative: has she asked him to come to the doctor?; does he give her any money?; where are her parents?; do they know about her pregnancy?; how is she supporting herself?. And…how does she feel about him through this difficult time? This hole in the narrative might be caused by taking on difficult material from the past and fearing to offend someone we’re presently married to. But that’s what memoir needs – brutal honesty about tough stuff like this.
Sometimes there’s a hole (or many holes) in our narratives when we jump from one subject to another to another without telling our reader about scene shifts, or time shifts. A certain amount of moving from one thing to another is fine, of course. But I’m talking about omitting so much material that the reader is lost because, in the first few paragraphs we’re in the Midwest; and then in the next few, we’re suddenly in California (and goodness knows how we got there); then we’re back in the Midwest again; then suddenly we’re in …Japan! Torrents of language that move from here to there to there without thinking about helping the reader have so many holes in the narrative that readers of works-in-progress often don’t know where they are or why. Line by line, sentence by sentence, your reader needs enough information to stay oriented.
So grab a piece you’re writing. Pretend you’re someone else. Move through the piece line by line. Stop after every mark of punctuation, and ask yourself, “Have I given the reader enough?”; “What more do I need to say here?”; “What am I assuming the reader knows here that s/he doesn’t?”
Think about elisions of time; of place; of moving from one place to another; of motive; of parts of the narrative you’ve held back; of the obvious fact to you that requires explaining (the man you call “father” in the narrative isn’t your biological father); of your feelings about the event then, your feelings now. What more do I need to say here?
You might find, as I often do, to plug in the holes requires writing far, far more than you ever dreamed of something you think is very simple. A tiny mention becomes a scene becomes an important part of the narrative as we plug up the holes in the leaky boat of our early drafts.