Explicit or implied? Is there value in leaving part of a story untold?

I am struggling with my current work in progress, Emergency Landings.  An important element of the plot is inspired by real life traumatic events.  In order to make the writing less painful, I am doing everything I can to make the novel characters different from the real life characters, with varying degrees of success.

I recently blogged about the importance of continuing to write even when it is hard, emotionally and/or imaginatively.  Although I believe this to be true, I have been avoiding flashbacks for that very reason.  As much as I try to justify not having any memory-based scenes, I am coming to the conclusion that such scenes are necessary.  Emergency Landings is about the journey of a young widow. Without the backstory, the current story doesn’t make much sense.

Tonight, the deceased husband made his first appearance.  Contrary to my intention and expectation for this scene, the husband was loving and somewhat supportive.  It was then that I realized I am diving into choppy waters.  Abusive partners are unpredictable.  Any time this man appears, it will be an emotional coin flip.  And it will pick at my own psychosocial scabs in the process.

I wonder, however, could I tell Claire’s story without illustrating what it was that caused her to dislike her deceased husband so much?  I am reminded of The Blair Witch Project.  I loved that movie and part of what I loved about it was the fact that the evil spirits/witch were never visible to the viewer.  I thought that was a brilliant decision by the filmmakers, allowing one’s imagination to fill in the missing pieces.

Would it be possible to tell the story of Claire’s emotional journey without providing the exact details of her relationship with her husband?  Wouldn’t this allow each reader to have their own interpretation of Claire’s story, something of a blank canvas upon which a reader could project their own understanding of the story?  Or would this leave the reader frustrated, angry, or disappointed?

Am I on to something potentially interesting (for the novel) or am I just trying to rationalize my way out of the hard parts?

What do you think, as a writer and/or as a reader?

9 thoughts on “Explicit or implied? Is there value in leaving part of a story untold?

  1. That’s a really interesting one, and a balance that I think many struggle with. I think you need to work out the purpose of your story, and your reasons for leaving out information. Is it because it’s painful to write, or because you specifically intend it to be mysterious? Writing is hard, but we have to be fearless if we want to bring truth to our stories. Especially with realistic fiction, it’s that gritty truth that draws readers to it. If you leave out Claire’s backstory, what will you left with? Is her future as a stand-alone enough to make the story worth telling, or is it dependant on her past? If this is the story you want to tell, you have to find the strength to commit to it 100%. Good luck! — Esme x

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    1. Sigh. I don’t know. I know I felt like leaving it out because it is hard to write, but then I thought maybe it would be a good thing to let the reader infer why he is disliked so much (infidelity? physical or psychological abuse? Emotional abandonment?). Then again, I don’t want the reader to be frustrated and/or to feel short changed. I also suspect that if it feels like a cop out to me, it will come across as a cop out to the reader… I guess I am answering my own question, aren’t I? LOL.

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      1. Do what you feel will tell the story best. If that means concentrating on the present/future, and only hinting at the past with the psychological backlash, then that could work really well. But yeah, if *you* think it’s a cop-out, then the reader will certainly pick up on it. But, you know, you don’t have to get it all down now. Maybe your first draft will be focusing on the present/future, and in the revision stages you can think about if it needs more and add where necessary. If you’re not ready to go there yet yourself, let it sit for a bit 🙂

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  2. You know my views on this, dive in. You don’t want to overdo it with backstory because then your readers could get bored and want to get back to the “real story.”

    BUT, in a situation like this, where most people won’t understand the emotional implications of abuse unless they’ve been there, you have to paint a picture for them.

    Show them the husband being great one day and flipping the next and the poor wife’s confusion and blaming herself in the moment. Show her considering leaving him in the middle of the night. So people can feel where she was when she started the emotional journey.

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    1. I think that is going to be the key: just enough back story. I definitely don’t want it to be half and half. I think I need 1/4 past, and 3/4 present and future.

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  3. I was wondering this with an upcoming novel of mine. Basically, the MC is a young mother whose husband goes missing, leaving her to raise their daughter alone. 20 years or so later, she is now really wealthy and still looking for her husband. I was thinking of starting with the 20-years later part and have her backstory be mysterious, but now I’m thinking it would be better to start with the backstory and put a time skip in there somewhere.

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      1. That could work! I could start with the anniversary of his going missing maybe. If you were reading it, which would appeal to you more, starting with the present day or with the earlier events?

        What time zone are you in? From the time on the blog, it looks like you’re 5 hours ahead of me.

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      2. Hey there. I like starting in present day and then having flashbacks. It presents the conflict early on when you start with the present, IMO. I am on US Central time. I just keep weird hours.

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