Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.
The bartender slid the keys across the bar toward Judy with such force they flipped over the edge and onto a barstool. The keys that had been aimed so mindlessly at her would open the doors to what were supposed to become the band’s accommodations for the next two weeks. With a nod of the head pointing toward the rear of the building, the bartender informed us the rooms were located above the bar. Our eyes locked … close friends don’t need to talk sometimes, you just know what each of us is thinking; and we both knew we were surrounded by bad juju, and this was just the beginning. Judy and I turned and walked outside to update the other four girls, who were still waiting in the van. Suspicions already raised, we voted on who would head up our little reconnaissance mission. As leader, we naturally drafted Judy. The first in line is always the first to be sacrificed, right?
Single file, we stayed close to each other for security. All six of us followed the fractured sidewalk that looked like it had lost a bet with a jackhammer to the back of the building. The paint covering the wooden entry door leading to the second floor was blistered and cracked, scars from its colorful life. The feelings of fight or flight were beginning to set in, intensifying our natural instinct to turn around and run away from the decrepit building; but obligation forced us to open the door.
In spite of the creaking groan of the rickety wooden stairs, and against my better judgment, I cautiously continued placing each foot on the next step. My eyes felt the need to scan the tunnel-like surroundings, in case I had to make an emergency escape, when the words fell from my mouth, “I don’t like the looks of this, girls. Rooms above a bar—not a good sign.” I said this with the air of confidence of a nineteen-year old; a confidence that existed only because I was not alone.
This opening can be much improved without adding a single word. In fact, I’m going to subtract hundreds. First, though, let me explain why.
Never state what you can imply.
Years ago a dear writer friend gave me this useful bit of advice, which, whether he knew it or not, he got from French avant-garde poet, playwright, filmmaker (painter, photographer, chess player, etc.) Jean Cocteau. For a long time I clung to the injunction so fervently I printed it out in BOLD-CAPS, landscape format, and hung it on the wall over my computer next to that other sacred writers’ commandment: NO POV = NO STORY.
Since then, though I still cling tenaciously to the second injunction, I’ve loosened up a bit on the first. There are times, many in fact, when we writers need to state a thing outright, even when it has been or might be implied, in order to drive a point home or simply to draw more attention to it, or just to make sure certain implications don’t slip under the reader’s radar.
“Never state what you can imply” differs from “show, don’t tell,” that oldest of creative writing chestnuts, in that it allows for times when implication can’t always be achieved through action or “showing.” Sometimes—often in fact—we rely on the narrator’s intervention to interpret or color characters’ experiences and actions for us. There are also times when for pacing purposes an author wants to establish context more quickly than dramatization (“showing”) permits. And while it’s true that a story told purely through authorial summary (“telling”) isn’t likely to satisfy most readers, the same novel told purely through action and dialogue would in all likelihood be equally unsatisfactory. It would be like reading a movie, which is like drinking a steak.
I recall coming upon a “revised edition” of an early John Barth novel, The End of the Road, a black comedy about a character named (with intentional irony) Jacob Horner who suffers from nihilistic paralysis. I’d read the novel back in the seventies and much admired it. Curious as to what changes Barth had made, I did a page-by-page comparison with the original, only to find that the revision affected exactly one sentence. The sentence was “It hit me like a ton of bricks.” For the new edition Barth cut the line. He did so, I’m sure, because it merely stated an emotion obvious to anyone reading the scene, without adding nuance or dimension to it. On the contrary, it flattened the sentiment into a cliché. Still, the sentence did add something: a beat to allow the moment to “sink in.” If only Barth had not done it so tritely.
One of the best known examples of the power of implication is Hemingway’s famous short story “Hills Like White Elephants.” Though the story is about a young woman facing an abortion, that word makes no appearance in it. Nor are we ever told directly how either of the story’s two main characters—the woman and her male companion—feel about the prospect. Instead, all is implied through their terse, oblique, circuitous dialogue as they drink beer and absinthe and await the train that will take the woman to wherever the abortion will be performed. The first overt reference to the procedure doesn’t even appear until halfway through the very short story, where we read:
“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
“I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.”
The girl did not say anything.
Up to here, the characters have discussed (1) the shape of the hills in the distance, and (2) the taste of absinthe, nothing at all to do with the grim procedure awaiting the young woman. It can be argued that the true subject of “Hills Like White Elephants” is not abortion but avoidance. At any rate, nothing is stated; everything is implied. Our involvement in the story is heightened by the trust placed in us by the author, who dares to not describe or even to label emotions for us, who would rather risk our misunderstanding than do so. That trust, that willingness to let us supply and interpret emotions, makes for a truly interactive reading experience. We become Hemingway’s co-authors. We finish his story for him. As a result, it involves us more deeply.
Telling readers what to think or feel is the job of a propagandist. A storyteller’s main purpose, on the other hand, is to create experiences for the reader, to involve us so deeply, so convincingly, so authentically in those experiences that we feel what characters feel.
In this first page of a memoir, the author feels compelled to both show and tell us what her characters are experiencing, so we’re never allowed to draw our own conclusions. That the bartender shoves the keys “mindlessly” is implied by their flipping over the barstool. That the same bartender “informs [the narrator and her friend that] the rooms [are] located above the bar” is likewise implied by his directional nod. That the two protagonists share the same thought (that they’re “surrounded by bad juju”) is implied by their locking eyes with each other, as is the fact that their “suspicions [are] already raised.”
The tendency to state what’s implied persists through this opening, with us being told that Judy is the “natural” choice to lead her all-girl band in its reconnaissance mission to inspect their quarters, that the band members keep close together “for security,” and, as they make their way down the “fractured sidewalk that [looks] like it lost a bet with a sledgehammer” and through a paint-blistered entryway “scar[red] from its colorful life”, that “feelings of fight or flight were beginning to set in.” In case we missed the point, we’re furthermore informed that said feelings “[intensify their] natural instinct to turn around and run away.” Got it.
The same opening with implications left to the reader:
With a nod toward the building’s rear, the bartender slid the keys across the bar so hard they flipped over it onto a stool. The keys were to the band’s accommodations for the next two weeks. Judy and I locked eyes, then turned and went out to the van where the other three members of Ahead of Our Time waited.
Single-file, we followed Judy down the fractured sidewalk to the back of the building. The blood-red paint covering the door leading to stairs was blistered and cracked. As we made our way up, to the sound of wood creaking under us I said, “I don’t like the looks of this, girls.”
In Flannery O’Connor’s most famous story, “A Good Man in Hard to Find,” wherein a southern matriarch watches—or rather listens—as one-by-one the members of her family are executed by one of a pair of escaped serial killers in the woods close behind her, never once are we told how frightened and horrified she must feel. We aren’t told how she feels at all. The horror implicit in the scene is left entirely to our imagination. Which makes it all the more horrific.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)