What’s Left Unsaid

Woody Allen’s film, Annie Hall, won the Oscar for best picture in 1977, beating out (dare I say it?) Star Wars. Although regular readers of this blog know that I have an over-the-top love for the original Star Wars trilogy, (in particular the first film that lost the best picture Oscar to Annie Hall,) I try not to hold grudges. The truth is that I recognize that Annie Hall is a fantastic movie with an awesome narrative style.

One of the things that sets Annie Hall apart from other stories told on film is the access it gives the viewer to the inner thoughts of the characters, in particular Alvy, played by Woody Allen, and sometimes Annie, played by Diane Keaton. There are quick cuts to scenes that play out in Alvy’s imagination, moments when Alvy tells his inner thoughts directly to the camera, and still other times when subtitles run beneath a scene of dialogue, revealing that what the characters are thinking is far different from what they are saying.

These narrative “tricks” employed by Allen in making Annie Hall are all tools available to us as fiction writers, since—unlike film—stories created for the page have an easier time revealing the inner thoughts of characters. However, I think Annie Hall is a good reminder to writers of how flexible the inner life of a character really is, and how often the most interesting things about a character are revealed in the differences and disconnects between what a character thinks and what he says (or chooses not to say.)

Disclosing a disconnect between a character’s true thoughts and the words they say can help reveal character in interesting ways. Here are a few examples:

Usual disclaimer: I made these up on the spot for this post, so please don’t be too critical of the prose!

Mom started in with the usual sleepover speech. “Make sure you thank the Murphys for letting you stay over with Samantha,” she started. “They are such nice people…”

Blah blah blah… Listening to Mom praise the Murphys made my skin crawl. If she knew even half as much about Samantha’s parents as I did, she would never call them “nice.” The last time I stayed at their house, Sammy’s dad got so drunk he threw a beer can right at her mother’s head. He missed, but she threw it back and got him smack in the middle of the forehead. My mom would flip if she knew the truth about that family. “No worries, Mom. I’ll tell Mrs. Murphy you said hello.” I grabbed my coat to leave.

The above example reveals back story, as well as information about the main character’s relationship with her mother and her feelings about what’s happening at her friend’s house.

Here’s another example:

Mark finally emerged from the classroom, his hair a mess and his eyes bloodshot. I was beginning to wonder what had happened to him. That calc test had been such a cinch, I’d been waiting out here in the hall almost twenty minutes since turning in my own test paper.

“Tell me that wasn’t the hardest test you’ve ever taken,” he said.

Hard? It was full of stuff we learned last year. My baby brother could’ve aced that test between episodes of Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer.

“It was murder, right?” Mark looks like a punch-drunk fighter.

“Murder,” I say. “Toughest test I ever took.”

This example reveals tons of information about the two characters and their relationship simply by contrasting thought with dialogue.

Here’s a more extreme example of the same thing:

“I think I’m going to ask Caroline to the prom.”

Gak. I knew he would ask Caroline, but hearing him say it still turns my stomach. Little Miss Perfect, with her fake tan, fake nails, and fake smile. Driving around in daddy’s BMW with the top down so everyone in town can see how rich and spoiled she is. Ugh. “You definitely should,” I say. “You’d be cute together.”

Lastly, characters convey a lot about themselves when they think about all the things they’d like to say, but ultimately say nothing at all.

Mom zips her suitcase shut. A car horn sounds in the driveway.

“It’ll be okay,” she says. “It’s better that your dad and I spend some time apart.”

How much time, I wonder. Will you come back in time to do my hair for the homecoming dance? In time to cook Thanksgiving dinner? Will you be here to open the present I’m making you for Christmas? My mind wanders to the space in the back of my closet where I’ve hidden it – a collage of photos of the two of us from the time I was a baby until now.

Two quick blasts of a car horn interrupt my thoughts. “I’ll call you,” Mom says. One quick kiss on the cheek and she’s gone.

Of course, these are just a few basic examples of this concept. I’m sure you can think of many more.

Do you use this technique in your own writing? Have you ever found it easier to reveal your characters by keeping them silent than by getting them talking? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

  

10 Responses to What’s Left Unsaid

  1. Patrick Stahl Apr 19 2013 at 6:28 am #

    Wow, I have a very similar note written on a a sticky note on my bulletin board. Orson Scott Card is the first author I’ve actually noticed who used this, although I’m sure there are a ton more.

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Apr 19 2013 at 6:34 am #

      Hey Patrick! Ah, yes, the sticky note writing reminders! (I know them well.) Orson Scott Card is an excellent example. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  2. Amy Jane Apr 19 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    This is very interesting, and I always love it when I see it spelled out like that.

    I don’t think my story has it though– not the spelled out kind. I’m writing a fantasy, and (I think I’ve said this on my blog somewhere) instead of perfect bodies I lean toward speakers of perfect truth.

    That is, my liars are those insidious kind that deceive through manipulation of perception. Anyway, that just means that blatant contradiction of interior and exterior world isn’t this plain. Lies (so far) are of omission rather than contradiction.

    I wonder if that needs to change…

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Apr 19 2013 at 2:23 pm #

      Hi Amy Jane! Thanks for commenting. I definitely don’t think this technique has a place in every story, so I would carefully consider things before making changes. Your story, with its “speakers of perfect truth” sounds awesome. 🙂

  3. Heather Villa Apr 19 2013 at 3:52 pm #

    Hi Julie,
    It’s hard making a character seem like a “real” person. So taking a peek inside the head of a character, and exposing what a character is thinking is key. What a fantastic post.
    Thank you,
    Heather

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Apr 19 2013 at 4:09 pm #

      Thank you Heather! I agree that revealing character is a true challenge. Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  4. Rosanna Silverlight Apr 20 2013 at 4:41 am #

    Great post, Julie – thanks for exploring such an interesting idea!

    One of the biggest changes I’d like to make during revisions to my WIP is going from third person POV to first person. I really need to get inside my characters’ heads to show this kind of dissonance between thought and action. For example, my female MC is tough and rebellious on the outside, but on the inside she’s an emotional train wreck. My male lead is full of outward bravado and cocksure attitude, but on the inside he’s … well, a bit of a coward.

    I can’t wait to try out some of these ideas when writing their perspectives. Thank you for explaining them so well! 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Apr 20 2013 at 2:16 pm #

      Hi Rosanna! Wow, going from third to first person – I’m impressed with your fearless approach to revising! So glad you liked the post. All best on your revisions! 🙂

  5. Alexa (Loves Books) Apr 21 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    I really like this post! It’s totally true that sometimes, what a character/person says is different from what they’re thinking or feeling. I’m super grateful that you pointed this out. I’m sure we could all use a little reminder every now and then!

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Apr 21 2013 at 9:51 pm #

      Hey Alexa! I’m so glad you got something out of this! Since posting it, I’ve been extra mindful of the difference between what my characters are saying and what they’re thinking. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

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