Subtlety in Fiction – Trust Your Audience (Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons) by Brad Windhauser
Understandably, writers want (and need) to develop their world for their readers. To do this, the writer needs to create characters, a sense of setting, tone, etc. When it comes to the characters, you need to provide relevant details that paint them in a particular way. To do this, the writer needs to provide proper context for the situation in which a character has been placed—how is the character connected to the people in his her life? What’s his back story? Why is she standing on that corner?
There is a perhaps natural tendency to overload your readers with explanation, though. This is tempting in the beginning of a story, where the need to ground the reader is so important. In a novel, when much must be established, the author may feel the need to ensure all the important elements, characters, details are crystal clear immediately. The author might go to great lengths to cram all the info in there.
The problem with indulging this temptation is that it can bloat your prose and possibly alienate the very reader you are hoping to entertain. So how do you deal with this?
Trust your reader. Allow the story to unfold naturally, with details arriving as the characters would experience them.
An excellent example of this is in Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Breathing Lessons.
This novel follows Maggie Moran on the day she is set to take a car trip from Baltimore to Pennsylvania to attend the funeral of her best friend’s husband. Before she and her husband can leave on that Saturday, she has to pick up their car from the mechanic.
In the opening pages, having just picked up her car, she is listening to the radio. Waiting to enter traffic, she’s caught by the talk show’s topic: What makes an ideal marriage—about which she thinks she could care less. We learn in a parenthetical that she’s been married 28 years. Then the first call-in guest speaks: she’s about to get remarried and, unlike the first time—where she married for love—this time she’s marrying for security.
Maggie’s reaction: “Maggie looked over at the dial and said, “Fiona?” She meant to brake, but accelerated instead and shot out of the garage and directly into the street. A Pepsi truck approaching from the left smashed into her left front fender—the only spot that had never, up till now, had the slightest thing go wrong” (5).
Fiona’s identity is crucial to the plot—it serves as the backbone of what becomes the thrust of the novel. Yet Tyler does not clarify who Fiona is in relation to Maggie or what about her so rattles Maggie. For the moment, all that matters to the story is Maggie’s reaction and how this propels the story forward—we experience the information exactly as the character does.
This continues as she picks up her husband Ira, and after the more pressing matter (for them) of the damage to the car, she mentions why she was distracted: Fiona was on the radio. He ignores the comment and instead comments on the miniscule distance she traveled—she managed to get in an accident in five or six blocks? She redirects the conversation by stating that Fiona is getting married. His initial reaction (which she observes) is that “[s]omething cleared on his forehead” (7), which signals that he understands what the comment means—we don’t yet. His response: “Fiona who?” downplays the true meaning of the statement and opens the door for Maggie to reveal the connection: “Fiona your daughter in law, Ira.”
This temporary withholding of the information provides a couple things. Since THEY know who Fiona is, neither feels the need to drop the information in just because (which would be forced merely for the reader’s benefit). The narrator, however, creates a useful opportunity to both develop character and insert information. When Maggie reminds Ira, he clearly knows who Fiona is—why else would ‘something have cleared from his forehead’ in the middle of being annoyed about the car damage? Second, by using it in this moment, we understand a little more about their relationship and we understand that he wants to avoid anything related to his ex-daughter-in-law. This deepens the impact of the reveal. This then creates a major spine for the plot: how will these two navigate this information?
Since literary stories revolve around character, an author enhances the narrative by allowing the reader to experience the events in a story the way the characters do.