Clarity, All Is Clarity, by Ali Bacon

I’m afraid I’m not talking turkey gravy here, just another writerly conundrum. Do you ‘flatter your reader’ by letting them work out what’s going on, or just lay it on the line, loud and clear?

This balancing act came to mind during the recently concluded TV drama The Missing,  a gut-wrenching tale about the abduction of a five-year-old child and his father’s insistence on following up new clues eight years later when everyone thinks he should move on. I’m not questioning the characterisation, the acting or even the labyrinthine plot, only the problem of keeping track of what was going on in a narrative that jumped backwards and forwards in time right up until the final denouement. At first we were told this with useful captions ‘present day’ or ‘eight years earlier’ but after a couple of episodes we were left to work it out. 

Well that was fine up to a point, but because the locations and characters were the same in each time frame, some close observation was required:– what colour is her hair? – how bad is his limp? Despite a fair amount of concentration a few expletives were unleashed in our living room – so is this NOW or THEN?!? Maybe producers think it’s good to introduce a degree of mystification, but once or twice I just felt deliberately confused (why were we suddenly in the Indian Ocean?) as if the story wasn’t taut enough without a degree of over-complication. 

Daughter, captivating, and above all, clear!
While the series was under way I also happened to read Daughter by Jane Shemilt about the disappearance of a teenager. This narrative is also in two time-frames hinging on the day of her disappearance. There were a few other similarities with The Missing, but how wonderful it was to be told at the start of every single chapter that this was ‘two weeks before’  or ‘6 months after’ the abduction (if that’s what it was).
Clarity! This harrowing (but not entirely bleak) novel unfolds with a sense of inexorability that’s the hallmark of a page-turner without ever feeling contrived or over-complicated.
I suppose the visual medium has different demands and too much labelling might have seemed clunky  - and I know that even in a book ‘date stamps’ don’t always work (I read the whole of The Time Traveler’s Wife without taking in any of them!)  But there are lots of ways you can flag up a change of chronology in print or on screen. And if in doubt, I’d say don’t risk irritating your reader. Make the stuff they really need to know as obvious as you can!
Celebrate Christmas with a book, or a whole tree of them!
Seasonal message? I think it has to be that Christmas is for reading, so here’s a lovely tree built at my local library in Emersons Green, Bristol, where I’ll be joining in Christmas stories and carols on Tuesday.

Happy Christmas and a Guid New Year!


Dennis Hamley said…
I absolutely agree, Ali. I often write in different time scales and you HAVE to take your reader with you. However sophisticated concepts of time have become, our minds are set to a linear mode whether we like it or not. Our duty is to our readers - or viewers - and they need to know where they are. I think Audrey Ziffenegger does it brilliantly in TTTW. It's complex but clear and when we know where and when we are we can enjoy that part of the complexity which is worth enjoying. I really feel that those who regard clarity as a sort of dumbing down have more than a hint of the charlatan about them.
AliB said…
Thanks Dennis,good to know I am not alone. In fact I ignored the time tags in TTTW because I didn't really need them. I'm also very lazy when it comes to taking in 'information' e.g. I refuse ever to look up a glossary, map or family tree while I'm reading a novel. Either the story works or it doesn't for me.

P.S. In case you were wondering, I am not a robot :)
Debbie Bennett said…
The Missing confused me - especially when I realised there were more than two timelines to follow! And it was way too long with a very weak ending, I thought. 4 episodes would have been enough.
glitter noir said…
This post is a powerful, clarion call for one of the values that I prize the most. (The others are emotional content and speed.) As you say, it's good to know we're not alone. I spent months fine-tuning Red Champagne to ensure that no one got lost in a tricky, time-jumping story. Enough said. No tears. Clarity takes much hard work--but it's worth every bead of sweat.
Didn't watch the Missing and couldn't finish the Time Traveller's Wife - just didn't like it at all. Not even sure why. Don't think it confused me - it just bored me. But I definitely agree with you about the need for clarity. Some US crime dramas seem to do it very well - dates and places that seem to be snappy and informative rather than intrusive - but perhaps we are simply used to that way of doing it!

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