Thursday, July 5, 2012

Unseen, Unsaid, Understood: Ancient Art vs. Modern Fiction

Egyptian Art 2

At one time, my sister was semi-obsessed with Egypt. She's the one who educated me on frontality, which depicts an artistic subject from the front (obviously), even when his pose is more conducive to a side view. Try to imitate the guy's pose to the left, and you'll see how unrealistic it is.

"It's pretty funny," my sister said. "It's like, if we can't see both his shoulders, he must not have two shoulders. If we can't see his belly button, he must not have one."

Ridiculous, right?

However, in fiction, some authors seem drawn to frontality, too. Nothing (not even cutesy character names) makes me put a book down faster than this. Frontality in fiction is the opposite of subtext. The opposite of subtlety. It seems to be most obvious in dialogue.

Real people don't say everything they mean, especially when emotions are high or when conversing with someone they've known a long time. The most effective, most beautiful dialogue in fiction is the stuff that doesn't tell all, doesn't spoonfeed.

Here's an example, from a TV show that shall remain nameless. I'll start with my paraphrased version, featuring lots of awful frontality.

"When I was twenty-two, I was playing minor league ball. I was pretty good at it, and all that potential fame and money went to my head. So when I had the opportunity to make some more money by throwing a few games, well, it was the wrong thing to do, but I did it anyway."
"I see."
"But when I got called up to the majors, it hit me just how wrong it was to be doing this. I told the man I'd never do it again. He told me I wasn't allowed to say that to him, and he proved it." 
"I don't understand what you mean by that. Care to explain?"
"I was threatened by phone calls and a car that followed me home a few nights. Finally, when I wouldn't give in, my girlfriend was murdered, shot and left in an alley. After hardly any investigation, the cops decided it was a mugging that went bad. They closed the case, stopped looking. I argued, but no one listened, because I didn't have any proof to tie the man to her murder."
"I'm sure this event had long-term effects on you."
"Yes. I realized that this kind of thing happens every day. People lose their lives and justice is never served. I could never get justice for my girlfriend, but maybe I can get justice for others. So I put my baseball bat away and became an officer of the law."

You might be laughing, but I bet you've read published novels or watched films with dialogue exactly like this. The reader/viewer has no opportunity to discover, to put pieces together, to feel smart. Worse, any emotional power this scene could have gets buried under a tell-it-all avalanche.

Then we have the real TV script.

"When I was twenty-two, um, I was playing minor league ball. And I threw a few games."
"For money?"
"Yeah. Then I got called up to the majors, and all that stopped. The guy I did it for didn’t let it go so easy."
"Some guys threatened me at first. And then my girlfriend was, um … The cops said it was a mugging that went bad. And … That’s--that’s how I went from playing a game to being a cop."

Dialogue like this makes me keep reading. So much isn't said, but I know it all, and I feel it all.

Your turn, fellow readers. Is subtlety (or lack thereof) something you notice while reading? If so, recommend us an author or a book that resists frontality and embraces subtext.


  1. LOVE this! And you. And authors who don't beat me over the head. I was reading something (that shall remain nameless) recently, and I felt the need to yell at the book, "I get it!!! This is taking a emotional toll."
    So yes, I'm a reader, and I'm fairly intelligent. Please trust me.
    I've loved that in Divergent and Insurgent. It's 1st person, so we actually KNOW exactly how Tris feels about EVERYTHING, which is sometimes maddening, because she's having conversations with people, and you're like "But TELL him!!!" And she doesn't. And as frustrated as I get with the character, I love the author even more. Because she's shown me real life.

  2. Now that right there was a good blog post. When you initially said you were going to write about ancient egyptian art, and I laughed at you, it was because I thought you were going to talk about it's fine points, and i did't think that fit you at all.

    You force me off of my Steinbeck high-horse for a minute, because he actually isn't very subtle. His characters often times say exactly what they feel, or if they don't, their inner monologue does. He gives excessive character descriptions so that we know their personality, motivations, and tendencies before we even see them act or speak. Luckily for him though, he knows how to break yet another "rule" gloriously and effectively.

    I think it's easier to notice subtlety in TV and movies, because you don't usually have the inner monologue of the main character explaining everything for you. The subtlety of "Justified" was one of the characteristics I knew you would bask in when I said "hey you should watch this" two years ago. Perhaps books that are written in first person are more likely to spell things out for you than books that are just deep POV. In Dennis Lehane's Kenzie and Gennaro series, the dialogue can be subtle, but Kenzie's inner monologue drips with every feeling and memory the man has ever had.

    I'm scanning my bookshelves, and have decided that the first chapter of Joshilyn Jackson's "Between, Georgia" exemplifies the power of subtlety. I know you at least scanned that already. Yes, she does purposly fill in the exposition blanks later at more convenient times, but she typically gives you a chance to figure it out for yourself first. The dialogue phrases are short, and lack background information when the family members are interacting with one another. They already know their roles. The first couple of lines between Bernese and her husband are about a gun, but the reader instantly knows which one of them is the real head of the household. Genny never says "I'm scared, fix this", but you can see very quickly that she is a nervous lunatic that needs her sister to handle all problems. Joshilyn didn't say "Genny had to wake her deaf sister up, because her deaf sister didn't hear the gunshot", she just showed Genny and Stacia functioning together as they had their whole lives, and showed us that Stacia was deaf and fearless.

  3. Belatedy. I love both these comments. Thanks for chiming in, ladies. Literary discussions make me smile.