I read Terry Pratchett’s Dragon At Crumbling Castle collection recently. It contains his very early writings, and compared to his later Discworld books they aren’t much to speak of. But there are hints of what would come. While the humour feels drawn out and immature a lot of the time, it’s possible to see seeds of his later, more successful writing style.
The example that struck me the hardest is how he doesn’t describe everything. He’ll build up to some kind of action and then, at the last minute, he’ll cut away. Instead of describing what happens, he’ll allow the aftermath to subtly show us, allowing our minds to fill in the blanks.
He pulls this trick time and again in his books. It not only keeps his writing cracking on at a decent pace, but it also adds both tension and comedy.
Take the first scene in The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents. He starts with a conversation, in a coach, between a kid and a talking cat, and also introduces the smart mice. Then he has a highwayman hold up the coach. But things don’t go well for the highwayman—as he’s talking to whoever is in the coach (he can’t see inside clearly) he feels the mice climbing his legs, inside his trousers. After agreeing to Maurice’s deal, the mice leave. The highwayman is safe, and believes he can still win.
Then Pratchett gives us these lines:
He waited for his moment, then spun around, and ran forward.
Slightly forward, in any case. He wouldn’t have hit the ground so hard if someone hadn’t tied his bootlaces together.
Pratchett doesn’t describe—or even mention—the mice tying the man’s laces together. He doesn’t describe the highwayman falling. He doesn’t give any reaction from Maurice, the kid or the mice.
And the scene ends all the more powerfully because of that.
What isn’t included is as important as what is.
This doesn’t only work in writing. There are many examples in film. Think of the ending of Seven, where Brad Pitt’s character is confronted with a plain cardboard box. We’re never shown its contents, or even explicitly told what it contains, but through dialogue, and his reaction when he finally opens it, we know.
If David Fincher had decided to show us the contents of the box, through a model or CGI, the effect would have been diminished.
There’s another classic example in The Hitcher, in the scene where Rutger Hauer’s character has a woman tied between a lorry cab and trailer. He sits behind the wheel, foot on the clutch, with the story’s hero in the passenger seat. The hero could shoot Hauer, but then his foot would leap from the clutch and the cab would lurch forward, tearing the victim in half. There’s no way the hero can win this round, and his cry when the cab lurches is almost enough to drown out the roar of the engine.
We never see exactly what happens to the woman, but we know. And, again, our imaginations are far more effective than any special effects could be.
Imagination is powerful. Given enough clues, we can fill in the blanks. Someone with Pratchett’s level of mastery knows exactly how much to give and how much to conceal, knows just how far to trust the audience.
Amateur writers tell the reader what’s happening. Good writers show. But masters imply.