Monday, November 30, 2009

What We Leave Out

There is a bit of writerly advice one hears now and then that claims an author must know every little thing about one’s characters, even those details that don’t reach the page. I have always found this advice suspect, so I was gratified recently to read a Wall Street Journal Q&A with Cormac McCarthy, which was pegged to the release of the movie version of his novel The Road.

An unanswered question hovers over this elegiac story of a father and son, struggling to remain human at the end of the world. The question is simply: what happened to the world as we knew it? Nuclear winter? Man-made environmental disaster? Meteor?

McCarthy’s answer: “A lot of people ask me. I don’t have an opinion…. [It] could be anything…. It is not really important.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter what happened to create this particular story world — not, that is, in relation to the purpose of the story. Read on one level, this is a refreshing admission by a confident writer. On another level, it suggests that readers often ask the wrong questions. In this case — though the author has our curiosity up — the proximate cause of the characters’ predicament is not relevant because they didn’t personally cause the disaster. Yes, they must live in the consequences, because that disaster is the crucible that tests their relationships and their very humanity. But the detail of what caused the end of the world is a distraction that McCarthy won't indulge.

Sometimes, of course, writers mistakenly evade the hard questions — the hard decisions — about their characters, largely, I think, because we fear narrowing our creative possibilities. It’s important to acknowledge the spade work that needs to be done to build character and story in an authentic, convincing fashion. But it’s easy, too, to bog ourselves down in details that do not advance the purpose of the work.

One sometimes hears questions that interest a particular reader, but the answers to which would not have served the story purpose. The fact that McCarthy, in The Road, meticulously avoids answering the most salient irrelevant question about what happened before the novel starts -- and, in the process, drives some readers crazy with wonder -- speaks to the power that lies behind those "details" that writers may choose to leave out.