[Note: I wrote the notes to this post some months ago, but I had to translate a novel, and was unable to finish the series of posts until now.]
There is a scene in The Maltese Falcon (the first that, for some reason, springs to mind) when Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy that Joel Cairo has come to see him. We do not know yet what connection there is between O’Shaughnessy and Cairo, but when she hears the name, she says nothing, merely gets up and starts poking at the fire. One of the great advantages that film has is that it can with great immediacy and economy show us the curtain that goes up between what people say and do when they are really thinking about something else, which we are free not to notice if we’re not careful. In fiction, Sam Spade would have to describe the scene to us. He might choose only to relate what he sees — O’Shaughnessy getting up and poking the fire for a moment — or he might interpret it for us and tell us that he took this to be a sign that she was shocked and nervous. (His reactions suggest that this is the case.) If a third person were describing the scene, the choices would more or less be the same, unless he were narrating from O’Shaughnessy’s point of view and was consequently privy to her thoughts. But if the scene were narrated by O’Shaughnessy herself, it would have to be done very differently. The emphasis would have to be entirely on her thoughts and feelings, and not on her appearance at that moment, otherwise it would psychologically fake. She has been lying to Spade about her reason for hiring him, and has kept her involvement with Cairo and the Falcon a secret. But surely when she hired Spade on a false case, the real reason was on her mind. If she were narrating, she would have to be dishonest to the reader and conceal her thoughts about the Falcon. This dishonesty, like Roger Ackroyd’s, could not be justified from within the story by her frame of mind. It would be there for one reason only: to make the writer’s job easier. And this is laziness and sloppiness.
Recently I completed a scene from my novel in which the narrator, an old man, goes for a drive with his granddaughter. They stop for a coffee and some lunch and she surprises him by telling him the real reason for her visit.
As I said in my previous post, the novel is written as a journal-letter from the old man to the granddaughter for her to read one day. I have avoided to my satisfaction the pitfalls that come from the fact that the old man is relating a scene to someone who was there when it occurred. The problem is something else.
The journal entry is written after the revelation that shocks him, and the revelation would have been foremost on his mind from the first moment he picked up his pen. In order to create the feeling of surprise for the reader, the narrator delays it for as long as possible, but this delay is psychologically false. It is done only for my convenience as a writer.
So I realised the scene had to be approached differently. For a while I thought about foregoing the suspense entirely and trying to get some other merit from the scene. But if I did this too often, the novel would begin to lose its dramatic force. Eventually I realised I could still generate enough suspense if I mentioned the revelation at the beginning of the entry, so that the reader would be interested in how it had all come about. Then the narrator (and I) could backtrack a little and describe the trip to the cafe, which would now be suffused with tension and irony.