Let the Reader Fill in the Blanks
Readers as well as folks who go to the movies are smart and like solving puzzles. I wonder if we give our novel ‘audiences’ enough credit for their intelligence and their enjoyment in filling in blanks themselves. Bottom line, do we provide too much backstory?
I raise this question after seeing the film, ‘Without a Trace,’ last night. Here’s the blurb on the award-winning movie:
“Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter, Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), have lived off the grid for years in the forests of Portland, Oregon. When their idyllic life is shattered, both are put into social services. After clashing with their new surroundings, Will and Tom set off on a harrowing journey back to their wild homeland. The film is directed by Debra Granik from a script adapted by Granik and Anne Rosellini.”
Since the film has no soundtrack and is spare in dialogue, with a stunning state park in Oregon as the main character, the audience must watch the actions of Will and his daughter, Tom, to understand their relationship. Viewers wonder why Will chose to live, illegally, in the woods. Hiding. Homeless. Hungry. Healthy? Happy?
We know for certain Will has to live an isolated life, but we don’t know exactly why. Viewers get no information about the absent mother or how long the father has been sole caregiver. Critical elements of child-raising in such unusual circumstances are not explained. When the rangers and social workers take over Will and Tom’s care, even the questions they ask the father and daughter rarely get answered fully.
With the slightest of backstory, this movie is a success. How can that be?
We authors go to great lengths to chart every aspect of our characters’ personalities, even to tracking parent issues and growing-up events that define our heroes and heroines as adults. Villains and secondary characters get backgrounds, too, in order to craft them as believable and vital to the storyline. I up the ante with every book, thinking that deep is better and the reader will find my novel wanting unless every question about a character is answered by the end of the story (without info-dumping, of course). In my effort to be professional, thorough, and rational in my craft, have I dumbed down my reader?
My enjoyment of filling in the blanks in the movie convinced me to rethink the concept of backstory. Director Debra Granik gave me power to see what I wanted to see in the text; I appreciate her faith in me to round out the plot and characters on my own.
I want to consider ‘spare,’ and imagine a reader who would rather insert her own interpretation than have me lead her to mine.
How about you?