Defragging a Scene (and killing an Internet lie!)

First, I’ll kill an internet lie. (This is a good one, folks.) You’ve probably heard the famous line that celebrates brevity in writing:

“I apologize for the length of this letter. If I’d had more time it would have been shorter.”

If you’ve heard it, you’ve probably heard it attributed to Mark Twain. This is in lots of books and tons of web pages. It is one of the most widely distributed mis-quotations I know of. It isn’t by Mark Twain. Well, to be clear, it doesn’t originate with Twain. He might have recycled it (It’s a good line, after all) but the origins are with Blaise Pascal, two hundred years before Twain. (Click this link to see the actual letter). The real quote, at least in this translation, is far less zesty.

My letters, Reverend Fathers, have not been wont heretofore to follow so quickly, nor to extend to such length. My limited time is the cause of both the one and the other. I have been obliged to make the present too long, for the very reason that I had not the time to make it shorter.

Pretty easy to see why this error has been perpetuated. First, the quote itself defeats the argument it is trying to make, i.e., brevity is the soul of wit. Second, (no judging here, it’s just the way things are) a good slice of the population is asking “Who’s Blaise Pascal?”

Okay, but what does this have to do with William Gibson’s Neuromancer? A lot. Gibson is writing in the hardboiled style of detective fiction and a fundamental trope of that style is short, punchy sentences where much information is given, or implied, in very few words. In Neuromancer, the main character, Case, is a bit loopy from having his brain systematically fried by an old employer. That and too much cocaine. It makes sense for the language to be jumpy and unfocused. The character himself can’t focus; he’s just reacting. Many times in the first few pages I had to go back and review what I’d just read to figure out what was happening. Wait, why is that… whoa, what just happened? This is perfect, tight writing for this kind of story. A good writer like Gibson knows much more about what is happening than he puts on the page. If you spend paragraph after paragraph creating a character, describing every article of clothing, the whole history, blah blah blah, you lose the pace. You lose readers. Gibson is following the rule of thumb set out in that famous quote above by doing a lot of homework up front. He knows what’s happening, why, and to whom. With all that work done, he can actually minimize the words used to describe the scene, leaving some things only hinted at. This creates puzzles for the reader to figure out. It requires much closer attention than some (read: me) may be used to.

A scene where this works just fantastically is the introduction of a major character named Molly. Our man Case has just escaped from someone who’s been tailing him. Also, he’s had some data lifted by a ladyfriend/former associate called Linda Lee. He’s got his mind on Linda and not in a good way. She is the only girl on his mind. Then we get to this section where he gets home to his ratty apartment:

Look at that line beginning with “Close the hatch…” and going on to the next paragraph, “She sat with her back to the wall.” This isn’t Linda, who Case is thinking about. A few pages earlier Case was being tailed, but he lost it in a dodgy apartment building. There were hints – really only hints – of what happens in that scene. Sounds and shouts, the sound of a “bootheel” on the floor, someone, “a woman” saying, “Shit” to no one in particular.  A few pages later, a bartender mentions someone messing up a security guard around an arcade: “A girl, they say.”

None of this prepares a sloppy reader (read: me) for what hits on this page photographed above. The “She” who is sitting with her back to the wall is, we would assume, Linda. But it isn’t. It’s Case’s tail, a woman called Molly. But there is no introduction of this character in the traditional way. Nothing in those lines indicates that this is a new character we’ve never heard of before. Really it should be “A woman he’d never seen before, with shiny silver lenses for eyes, sat with her back to the wall…” But not in Neuromancer. Here it is simply “She.”

Case is tired and woozy. He isn’t thinking very clearly. It makes perfect sense then that this new figure entering his life isn’t given a close review right out of the gate. In the haze of minimalist writing, where it is up to us readers to pick out all the clues, she is simply “She.”

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