I remember in grade school we would sometimes get puzzles or logic problems to work on. My favorites were rebuses, the pictograms that represented a word or phrase. For some reason, this one always stuck with me:
I think it stuck with me because though I solved the puzzle — Read between the lines — I didn’t understand the expression. I knew what it meant at an academic level, but I had never experienced reading between the lines before. I didn’t know how to do it or when it was necessary.
It wasn’t until much later in life, when I started reading Hemingway, that I finally felt the Aha! moment of picking up on allusions, of filling in the blanks the author leaves empty, of understanding what the author is telling you without telling you.
Hemingway is a master of this. His words tell one story — a story that often seems simplistic and superficial when the lines are the only thing you’re reading. It’s the words he leaves out that tell a deeper, more complex, more human story, as in the frustrated love between Jake and Brett in The Sun Also Rises, or the unspoken story behind the dialogue in “Hills Like White Elephants.”
I remember the sensation of it all clicking for me when I picked up on the unwritten story in a book. I don’t recall the book — it may have been Life of Pi — but I remember thinking, “This is what it means to read between the lines.” It was one of those moments when your scalp prickles and you get a rush of heat in your chest. And when it all clicked, when I finally understood, I thought of that pictogram from grade school, as I still do whenever I think of reading between the lines.
The bigger mystery to me now is how does a writer achieve this phenomenon, of creating a story behind the words? It requires deliberate, precise choices: this act of omission, this art of leaving negative space. It is a rare and precious skill.
6 thoughts on “Read between the lines”
And just how does one learn this skill?
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I’m still trying to figure that out.
I’ve never understood how a writer can judge just how much information they have shared and the picture that has formed in the readers mind.
Good one. Do you really think this is deliberate? I think the effort to improve narrative is deliberate though. I find that good writers develop this skill as inclusive of their storytelling style; part of it is gifted and part of it is a learning curve, it gets better with conscious effort – write, edit, re-write, and edit – continually!
“It was one of those moments when your scalp prickles and you get a rush of heat in your chest.” How weird! I experienced that a-ha sensation reading this line because you hit the nail on the head with your description of that sensation. Did you get that? 🙂
I agree with you…it’s a precarious task to write something that a reader can read through! I have been writing for some time now and I realize that sometimes you just churn out crap and sometimes, when pen touches the paper, you create Magic….illusions of the mind that translate into illusions of literature. But can’t prepare for that to happen…you just accept that it does.
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