I recently finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the book, it didn’t quite make my Top 10 of all time books. The book is beautifully written, and Ms. Tartt has proven that she is a master of gorgeous, flowing prose. Her style reminded me very much of my favorite book of all time, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Both authors employ flourishing language in their stories that put the reader smack in the middle of the action they portray and give the reader such vivid detail that even the least imaginative among us can conjure up the setting of each scene and the nuances of each unique character, but Goldfinch reminded me of one important aspect of storytelling: Mind the Gap.
Great storytellers know the importance of the gap in any story. The gap is the detail that is not provided, the parts of the story left to the reader’s imagination. Sometimes the most powerful elements of the story are all in the reader’s mind. The storyteller simply provides the setting, the characters, and the fuel to the story, and the reader does the rest.
For example, my brother-in-law is a superb storyteller. He instinctively knows just the right amount of detail to provide in any story he tells to great comedic effect. He always gets it right, the timing, the details, the pause, etc. Another person less gifted could tell the same story and it would fall flat because they didn’t mind the gaps. Too much detail, awkward timing, and nonexistent pauses would surely kill the essence of the story.
The same is true in writing. I think of writing very much like drawing a picture except when you draw a picture you want it to be complete in every sense of the word – shaded in all the important places or the right colors used. In writing, you don’t want to shade or color every single part of the story. You want to leave some areas open for interpretation to allow the reader to fill in the gaps. That’s what gives the reader the satisfaction of reading the story. They can make of it what they want. Getting this right is extremely difficult but very rewarding.
Such gaps are also why two people can read the same story and come away with different perspectives on it. My wife and I are very different readers. She loves thrillers and supernatural stories about vampires, while I tend to love stories that focus on the human experience. We are both voracious readers, and we’ve read the same books on more than one occasion. Each time we discuss the books, we have different interpretations of the stories and what makes them good or bad because we fill in the gaps differently. In fact, she didn’t like Shantaram even though it’s my favorite book. The gaps of that story simply didn’t tickle her imagination like they did mine.
All of this gets me back to The Goldfinch. Ms. Tartt’s powerful novel, although beautifully written, sometimes tries to fill in all the details. Theo, the protagonist and narrator of the story, goes into great detail about many things, often to the point of exhaustion. I love the prose, but even someone who likes to turn words over and enjoy the feel of them and the meaning they convey can get a little exhausted with the endless details. Sure, the settings and characters described were clearly drawn for me, but I could have gotten the sense of them with fewer details. That’s what my imagination is for. Roberts is very similar to Tartt in his love of flowery prose, but he stopped short of going too far and that’s why I loved Shantaram and simply liked Goldfinch very much. It’s all in the gaps.