The things we leave out

So I’m at work the other day singing along to David Bowie in my cubicle (like you do), and I hear the following lines:

Well she’s a total blam-blam
She said she had to squeeze it but she—
And then she—

And I think to myself, that skipped beat at the end of each line is so much more salacious than anything Bowie could have actually said.

This is an instance of an oft-repeated point: what you can’t see is often far sexier, more horrifying, or more inspiring than what you can see. This is easy to forget. There’s a reason why many modern horror films are referred to as “torture porn” — just as porn reduces eroticism to a numbing, empty series of copulations and money shots, horror that shows us everything is merely desensitizing, destroying the very terror it is supposed to provoke.

A competent writer or director, on the other hand, knows just how much he should show before cutting away.

Consider the shower scene from Psycho. A modern director might have given us a much less coy scene, with full frontal nudity and plenty of close-ups of the knife going in and blood gushing out. Hitchcock knew better. His scene gives us hints of Janet Leigh’s naked body, but not the whole thing. We see the killer’s face, but only obscured by a curtain or hidden in shadow. We see a knife, and we see blood, but the fact of knife piercing flesh is left to implication.

I’ve heard it said that Hitchcock was forced to do this by the censorial codes of the day, and indeed the scene skirted the edge of scandal in its time. But Hitchcock was still a better artist than that. Even if offered today’s license for vulgar exhibitionism, he would know better than to indulge.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, consider this book of “lost” sex scenes from Jane Austen. Granted, the book is a joke. Still, it seems to entirely miss the point of Austen’s dialogues, which are so wonderful precisely because so much is left to inference and implication. The pornographic impulse is completely missing from Austen’s work, as Austen knew that the most romantic scene, indeed the most erotic scene, is one in which the romance and the eros are present only in the blank spaces around the actual words. It says nothing good about us that someone thought that Austen could be “improved” by adding some sex scenes.

(The one bright spot in all this is that this book has plenty of one star reviews.)

What does this have to do with me? Well, I complained a few days ago about not having the appropriate vocabulary to directly describe a childbirth scene, and having to resort to circumlocution and euphemism. I have started to reconsider my position on this. It is possible that these scenes may be made more affecting by avoiding direct description, and leaving the gory and intimate details to the reader’s imagination.

Something to consider when I start to revise.


  1. A few things about how Hitchcock set up the film that are salient. Despite complaints about how scandalous and tasteless Hitchcock’s handling of the scene was when the film came out an important artistic decision was made before shooting, to film things in black and white. This established an emotional distance in tone but also allowed Hitchcock to make the scenes less seamy and let him use chocolate syrup as a blood stand in instead of spending money on more realistic prop blood. Hitchcock and Hermann actually had a battle about the famous screeching violins. Hitchcock felt they were too crude, too obvious, and sent the tone of the film overboard. Famously, Hermann managed to change Hitchcock’s mind about that.

    I think the difference between HItchcock and torture porn might be the difference between what could be called high and low Gothic. What do you think? I was trying to explain to a roommate who likes sci-fi but disliked the X-Files that the X-Files VERY deliberately went high Gothic and the show was always at its best when the quest for truth DIDN’T have answers. That’s why the first five seasons of the show (to me) still hold up, while the last four seasons are travesty.

    1. That’s a very interesting point about Hitchcock choosing to shoot in black-and-white. I had known that factoid at some point, but it had fallen into my passive memory in the meantime. I agree that this makes a huge difference in how visceral the scene feels, and contributes to its iconic, horrifying status.

      I admit that I don’t really know what the difference between high and low Gothic is, and I haven’t watched enough X-Files to comment on that, either :).

      1. Alien/horror films may be a useful metric for delineating between high and low gothic approaches. Ridley Scott’s film Alien takes the “high” approach by never really showing the monster until the very end and even then we never see the “whole” monster in any panoramic shot. The beast is a metaphor for something else that we’re all afraid of (if the metaphor even works).

        By contrast, the low gothic approach starts off with a big ol ugly monster that gets defeated only for us to discover the hero must face an even bigger, uglier, and more evil monster. Cue James Cameron’s film Aliens, in which Ripley, having defeated the alien from the first film, discovers that those are the “kid” versions of the monster and that the mama monster must be defeated.

        Of course if you haven’t watched either Alien or Aliens all that explanation is still pretty useless, eh? 🙂

      2. Actually, I love both of the first two Alien films, so that gets your point across very nicely. I definitely prefer the low-Gothic approach for most of my watching and storytelling, though.

  2. I’m interested in what you know about childbirth. It is not the physical or the gory feat that is real. It is the emotion. Being highly evolved and intelligent mammals, our birthing experience goes beyond physical demands, and capturing that moment, that raw emotional truth is something I’m interested in seeing you grapple with. I’m skeptical to say the least, but alas, what do I know?

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