Writer’s Rules: Not Everything Needs Explaining
Not everything needs spelling out.
During America’s Great Depression, MGM and Warner Brothers made a fortune from relentlessly upbeat musicals. After Watergate came a slew of films that explored and explained how things became so broken. And now, when the young are facing the kind of crises they really shouldn’t have to worry about until mid-life, everyone’s seeking not just fantasy escapes but explanations.
It’s hardly surprising, given that we’re stuck in the unsolvable paradox of Brexit. Ask someone in the street why they voted Leave and you’ll hear ‘We don’t want to be controlled by Europe’ parroted back without any understanding of what it means. Control is a concept at the root of our fears, both in its absence (‘The Road’) and its ubiquity (‘1984’, ‘Brave New World’).If we can explain why things have happened, we have a chance of regaining control.
In creative fiction, neat explanations provide stability and return a spirit-level sense of normality. If you can understand someone, you can live with their behaviour. It’s the unknown and unknowable that frightens.
You may not even be aware that there was a remake of ‘The Birds’ in which avian behaviour was explained away by blaming big pharma dumping chemicals in the water. But the power of ‘The Birds’ lies in its lack of explanation. Hitchcock understood this to the point of ending the film in mid-action and denying closure to his audience.
Two films in cinemas this week prove the point. In ‘Judy’ we trace the roots of an erratically behaved, damaged woman to a childhood corrupted by big business. We can see how she ended up a wreck so we don’t dismiss her as spoilt and disturbed. Her childhood explains her destiny. In ‘The Joker’, a villain whose traditional motive has been inexplicable madness is transformed from comic book silliness to a documentary-style real events that go out of their way to explain his behaviour.
Just as ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ failed to prove an ending and ‘The Wicker Man’ and ‘Kill List’ leave narrative gaps, the author knows that not every last detail needs explanation. I dump books that start with a description of an arrival at a country house, say, if by page 6 we’re still unpacking the suitcases. Not everything needs spelling out.
One of the great writing rules is; ‘You don’t have to know why two people fall in love, you just have to accept that they do.’ Equally, many crimes seem motiveless. We’re all wondering about the recent case of the boy who threw a child from the roof of the Tate Gallery. We want to understand but cannot find any way of doing so. Removing a solid motive raises the stakes for the writer and the reader. Making it believable and even understandable is a trick only a few can pull off.
One cavil; when a story is utterly inexplicable it becomes a dream – case in point, the positively deranged film ‘In Fabric’, a recent arthouse hit involving a cursed dress and a department store full of witches.