Schrödinger’s Cat and Writing: Less is More

This entry is part 11 of 13 in the series Shifting Tides

Recently, when writing a new WIP, I was confronted with a quandary.  I had a character who’d been through a traumatic experience.  As I continued to write, I kept just not writing any details about her experiences.  First because I wasn’t sure what to write.  I hadn’t decided what she’d been through so I figured I’d just go back later and fill it in.  After all, at first I hadn’t figured much out about the story other than the premise.

As time progressed, I made a decision, though.  I continued to write, but instead of leaking details of her captivity and what was done to her, I decided to only write the effects her captivity and her experiences had on the present.  Her nightmares, waking people up screaming in the night, paranoia, stealing weapons and slipping daggers up her sleeves.  You name it.

As I continued to write, I realized something.  I could never write anything better than my readers’ imagination.  My conclusion was this.  Some things in writing are like Schrödinger’s Cat.  I never really understood the idea that a cat could be both alive and dead in a box simply because we wouldn’t know it’s fate until we opened the box.  After all, to my logical mind, the cat is either alive or dead.  Just because I don’t have all the data, doesn’t make reality any different, right?  But, apply the same principles to writing and it makes perfect sense.  After all, if I never give her actual experiences, she will suffer ever experience imaginable.  And, better yet, every experience will be tailored perfectly for the individual reader.  How could I ever write something better than that?

The question is when to give every detail and when to just shut up.  I guess it’s a bit like a child being missing.  If the cops never find the child, the not knowing is debilitating, leaving the family in a state of suspension they can’t break free of, never quite being able to fully grieve and move on.

The trick is giving enough information for readers to be satisfied while withholding enough to keep their imaginations pumping.  With my character, you know she was kidnapped, you know she went through hell, you know she is traumatized by what happened.  Beyond that, does it really matter what specifically she went though?  Her trauma is the important part, not her past.

Anyone else have examples of strategic withholding of information?

Photo credit: TravelGrrrl / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND



I thought of something else while responding to someone on twitter.  Hitchcock, one of my favorite filmmakers, is a great example of this technique.  Take Psycho, for example.  Nowadays in horror, we frequently show every little detail, but instead of making it scarier, its just gorier.  It loses the heart-in-your-throat, edge-of-your-seat thrill Hitchcock gave to his movies.  Not knowing, or just not seeing, allows you to focus on or obsess about what is important, rather than details that might pull you out of the scene (and turning away because someone is being cut in half and you don’t want to watch definitely takes you out of the moment – you’re actually forced to distance yourself from the story with the added gore factor).

I recently read and reviewed a novel called The Beckoning of Beautiful Things by Calinda Be.  The last fight scene in that novel was fantastic.  She has the enemy fighting creatures in the dark.  You don’t know what the creatures are.  You are just experiencing the scene as a bystander listening to the carnage and screams of those being killed, the hideous sounds the monsters make.  I honestly think the scene wouldn’t have been as good if she’d gone about describing the scene.  It would lose something.

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  • Very interesting, I like your thinking! Although also, sometimes it’s good if the writer knows those things – even if she doesn’t tell the reader. If you know your characters’ hinterlands, even if you don’t disclose the detail, that will come through in the writing, and the reader will get a sense of depth and complexity, even if they never find out the full truth. (Whereas if you tell the reader everything you know it ends up like the later Harry Potters, as we plough through pages of backstory and detail that don’t actually advance anything.)

    I suppose The Turn of the Screw is the classic example of withholding pretty much everything…

    • A

      So true. I routinely keep back information from my readers that I know myself. Another good example is with my vampires in Forever After. I know everything there is to know about the biology of the vampires, but I only write most of that stuff indirectly. If I went into massive detail about all that jazz, it would first be an info dump (which is a no-no), and second would include a lot of technical jargon most of my readers wouldn’t understand. It might be fun for the odd doctor or scientist, but it would make the general public’s eyes glaze over.

      I never read the last Harry Potter books, but I can certainly understand where you are coming from there. Backstory’s should be well integrated into the story. Maybe a scene at a time. Stephen King’s It is my classic example when it comes to too much backstory. The novel was a thousand pages long and the average flashback was easily fifty pages long. I finally put the story down halfway because I no longer knew which way was up anymore. Now, no dissing King. I loved some of his earlier works. I think at some point, he just got wordy and got carried away. I tend to pick his books up depending on length, books like Christine and Cujo.

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