Mind the gap? Not if you’re a writer! Katharina Hartwell, Solitude fellow in the field of German literature, reveals her personal fascination for the blank space in narrations and introduces the potential of the gap to heighten suspense in a story and, sometimes, even life.
Illustrations by David Frühauf.
Last summer I was riding my bike through Tiergarten, when I saw a woman standing on a ladder. The ladder was leaning against one of the larger trees and the woman was keeping herself busy with a branch. As I was riding my bike and only passing by quickly I couldn’t see what she was doing exactly. Yet, the woman had surprised me. Something about her seemed not quite right to me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something furtive about her. She seemed caught in the act, though I could not have said what act that might be.
Later that day I told a friend of mine about the woman on the ladder, and he immediately informed me about the many mundane reasons why the woman might have stood on that ladder. For example, she might have wanted to pick something, a blossom, a fruit. It was even more likely that she had wanted to liberate some unfortunate object that got stuck in the branches. It was also possible, my friend informed me, that the woman had spotted some helpless animal, a cat most likely, trapped up there and had come to its rescue.
»But you wouldn’t go dragging a ladder through Tiergarten because of some random cat,« I objected. The woman, I reminded my friend, could not have been there in any official capacity, as she had not been wearing a uniform or any kind work clothes, really. She was dressed in an ordinary, rather casual windbreaker.
My friend’s analytical, cold gaze seemed to shrink the mystery further, determined to rob it of its last bit of glowing mystery. »I mean, you know that there is a house in Tiergarten,« he continued mercilessly. »It’s pretty close to your biking route actually. Probably there’s someone living there who’s responsible for the maintenance of the park. Like … a woman in a casual windbreaker, for example.«
It was true, in less then ten minutes my friend had successfully dismantled the mystery. He had found a plausible explanation for the woman on the ladder. A simple task I had not succeeded at. To be fair though I hadn’t really tried. My friend’s explanation was not only plausible it was also fairly boring.
»A gap. A blank space. Something that can’t immediately be explained, a hole sitting in the fabric of the story, exactly where we would expect an explanation, an answer to the questions.«Katharina Hartwell
For this reason I am proposing an alternative explanation. Let’s just assume the woman in the casual windbreaker was living in the tree. At least during wintertime. Let’s assume the tree was completely hollow inside and that she could only access the inside through the crown. Having climbed up the ladder she would probably disappear through some unexpected opening, hidden by the branches. And that is where she would stay, all winter long, standing in the hollowed out tree trunk squinting through some knot-hole. Only the lonesome ladder, still leaning against the tree, would reveal to the watchful observer that the woman had ever climbed up the tree. But, I suppose sooner or later someone would find a prosaic explanation of how it had got there.
Admittedly, my little story about the woman in the hollow tree is not really an answer to the mystery of the ladder. It is rather a mock-answer and one that itself brings forth a whole bunch of new questions. Why would the woman spend an entire winter in the tree? Was she even a real woman? And – this one is of particular importance, at least for the woman herself – how would she manage to emerge from the tree, come spring?
Let’s look at the anecdote of the woman on the ladder a little more closely. Let’s look at it as thoroughly, as questioningly as Sherlock Holmes, as C. Auguste Dupin, or as Miss Marple would. Let’s grab a magnifying glass and a shiny little notebook. We have a rather simple plot and two characters. Of course, if we actually wanted to get Holmes, Dupin ,or Marple interested, we would need at least one corpse, the faintest trace of a gruesome and inexplicable crime. I can’t give you either. But I can give you something else. A gap. A blank space. Something that can’t immediately be explained, a hole sitting in the fabric of the story, exactly where we would expect an explanation, an answer to the questions: what is the woman in a casual windbreaker doing on a ladder? What’s with her furtive look? What does she hide?
The story of the ladder is, obviously, just a peculiar little anecdote, the notion of the gap or the blank space, on the other hand, is known to us through a variety of popular literary examples. In fact an entire genre is built around it – the detective story. When it comes to classical or more conventional genre the nature of the gap is a fairly restricted one. It is just large enough to contain the perpetrator  . Or alternatively the motive, possibly the circumstances of a crime. You might also encounter the gap in thrillers, horror, gothic, or mystery fiction. Whenever there is a haunted house, whenever someone disappears under mysterious circumstances, whenever there is talk of a dark family secret, whenever a child notices some strange movement in the shadows, the narrative gap is close by.
But Why Does the Genre Love the Gap So Much?
First of all, because it generates suspense. We are turning the page, we are watching the film right until the end, because we are convinced we are on to something. Rather urgently we suddenly feel the need to find answers to those questions the text (which might be a story, a film, a play) itself brought into our lives – the question of »who killed Laura?« wasn’t a matter weighing heavily on our hearts before we entered the fictional world that introduced us to Laura in the first place.
This is a personal essay, so here are some very personal reservations I have towards classical detective fiction and a conventional use of the gap and its relation to suspense. Frequently I do not like the rather simplistic method of construction that is employed. There usually is a setting, a few (shady) characters, a plot and right in the middle a neatly cut out gap. Mostly, we can rely on the fact that the gap will be covered with fictional concrete before the story reaches it conclusion. Yet, once the investigation is closed and the culprit is behind bars I am always filled with a bleak feeling of disenchantment. Disappointment. I feel the same way when I think about the house in Tiergarten and the fact that the woman on the ladder in in all probability simply lives in this house somewhere nearby – and not in a tree.
»Didn’t we go to the cinema to see a monster?«Katharina Hartwell
I experience the same effect whenever I see a new horror movie or SciFi film, and the monster, the alien or ghost steps out of the shadows and into the light. Interestingly enough, among horror-fans a frequently heard praise goes, »they didn’t show the monster at all!« This might be a surprising remark at first. Didn’t we go to the cinema to see a monster?
The answer to this question is probably linked to another: How is it possible that after seeing a particularly nerve-racking film we might be able to remember the image of the masked murderer and the anxiety he caused us for years to come (think of popular examples such as Scream or Halloween), but will have forgotten in a matter of weeks or days whose face had actually been hidden by the mask. It seems as if the unseen, the not yet visible is infinitely more interesting, unsettling and fascinating than whatever is actually revealed to us. As long as there is a gap we are still expecting, thinking, wondering, fearing, hoping. We are emotionally engaged in an almost painful way. The revelation, the answer to our questions, however, will quickly let us sink back into our comfy TV chairs. The revelation does not require our co-operation, our work, our engagement. The revelation needs us to be passive. We are not writing the story anymore, we are not its author any longer, we just receive. Then we turn around. Leave. Forget. The gap, on the other hand, demands something of us. It wants something from the reader, the viewer. It is only inside of the gap that the consumer will turn into a producer, the reader into the author. The story is being written in our own heads.
»[…] in my view, the gap is infinitely more than the mere result of a particularly lazy working phase. Neither is it the result of simple cluelessness.« Katharina Hartwell
But, you might say, if it is the readers who are writing the story, the readers who are producing (at least in their own heads), then what the heck is the author doing? By resorting to blank spaces, to gaps, the author reveals her own laziness. Isn’t it her task precisely to think of something? To invent, come up with a solution, an explanation. An end.
And yet, in my view, the gap is infinitely more than the mere result of a particularly lazy working phase. Neither is it the result of simple cluelessness. Creating – or as I would maintain writing – a gap is a different work than writing text and straightforward narrating. It reminds me less of drawing or painting than of a paper cutout. A certain picture emerges, not because something is added, but rather because something is being taken away. The power of the gap is counteractive to the main work of the writer, for the writer usually accumulates, adds, piles up – words, sentences, chapters, meaning, significance, observation, explanation. A text most of all is an accumulation. Characters are nothing but heaps of piled up traits and features, experiences, convictions, and thoughts the author has compiled just for them.
So exactly how difficult can it be to omit something? The answer – one possible answer that is – might be found when we take a look at chess. If I want to win a game I have to manage to place my pieces at certain positions – positions which will make it impossible for my opponent’s king to escape. For he will be trapped in an invisible net, caught in a fine mesh of hypotheses – If you move over there, I will come for you.
It is equally challenging to build a solid gap as it is to trap a king. Our moves are not aimed at finding, almost accidentally, the one draw that will checkmate him. They are about anticipating a whole array of different draws, they are about weaving a web. The beauty of the mystery resides precisely within that web. You can almost see all these possible draws, glistening, flickering, for a brief instance they are all there.
»There are no busy spiders at work any longer; the weaving has altogether stopped. Our work is done.«Katharina Hartwell
The climax of the Whodunnit-mystery is, of course, the moment the investigator steps forwards to reveal his findings. He will inform the confused crowd about the culprit, the motive, the true nature of the crime. To me it feels as if the self assured investigator was taking a scissor to the web of possibilities, cutting out one of the threads, in order to exclaim victoriously: »Got him!« When it comes to the content of the story I do, of course, understand the function of this revelatory moment. As an author, however, it simply makes me sad. Sure you have succeeded in claiming your measly thread now, but the web is broken. It is destroyed. There are no busy spiders at work any longer; the weaving has altogether stopped. Our work is done.
This precise movement – the investigator’s stepping in front of the crowd, revealing his superior knowledge – looks back upon a long tradition. In 1841, a text was published that is now considered to be the first modern detective story – Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Poe’s most famous detective, C. Auguste Dupin, took the stage for the first time  . Dupin sees himself confronted with a great mystery. Two women, mother and daughter, were murdered in their apartment on the fourth floor of a large building. At the time of the crime the apartment was locked from the inside. Admittedly this mystery is decidedly more mysterious than my encounter with the woman on the ladder. Both, however, have something in common. There is an opening in the story, a doorway leading to who knows where. Only this is certain: the sudden onset of the supernatural is possible – the inexplicable, the inconceivable is lurking in that darkness.
In Poe’s story  it is warded off quickly. Dupin almost immediately finds a perfectly reasonable explanation for the initially inexplicable mystery. There was no ghost, entering the locked apartment, it was merely an ape, climbing up the wall of the building and through the window. »Well, someone came up with a pretty nifty idea!« fans of the Whoddunnit would probably exclaim at this point. Yes, sure the explanation might be an original one, but it still works its magic of complete disenchantment. An ape with a razor does not shake the foundations of my world. He doesn’t challenge my concept of reality. Yes, a satisfying answer to the question of how anyone could have entered that locked apartment has been found, the gap has been closed, and we are either amused, impressed or annoyed. Or bored. Just as bored as we were when we imagined how the woman in the casual windbreaker left her house in Tiergarten and climbed up, up, up the ladder to remove that kite, to rescue that helpless kitten.
»I take a very short look into that infinite abyss of all the things we don’t yet know and maybe never will. Here at the edge, here at the fringe the truly fascinating things might be spotted. As long as the gap is still wide open, it is an entrance, a doorway.«Katharina Hartwell
The gaps, the mysteries and blank spaces do not confine themselves to books and films. They appear everywhere in the world. Crimes are actually committed, people or objects actually disappear. Frequently we are waiting for some kind of explanations, frequently we get it, frequently we don’t. The question of how we confront these daily mysteries depends on the specific circumstances of the mystery and also on us. What do we expect, what do we want from the mystery? You can confront the empty space as analytically, as scientifically as Dupin would in his Tales of Ratiocination. You are then searching for the most plausible explanation, you want to locate that house in the Tiergarten where the woman in the windbreaker resides. You want to discover a truth about crimes, bodies, nature, and science. When it comes to fiction I prefer a much more vague, less efficient manner of facing the mystery. I want to linger, I want to loiter, I want to stroll around in the vicinity of that black hole, and sometimes a risk a glance into that darkness, albeit briefly. I take a very short look into that infinite abyss of all the things we don’t yet know and maybe never will. Here at the edge, here at the fringe the truly fascinating things might be spotted. As long as the gap is still wide open, it is an entrance, a doorway. We still don’t know where it leads to, whether the darkness behind has walls, a ceiling, a ground. Imagine it, maybe, like the inside of a giant limestone cave. Somewhere in there the answers to all our questions grow like stalactites.
But within the limestone cave also dwells the unimaginable, the monster we have not seen, the ghostly presence that has never fully revealed itself to us.
»Well, I kind of imagined something more frightening,« we might hear the weary horror-fan exclaim after the monster has actually stepped into the light. But might we ask whether this is actually true? Did she? Isn’t fear always triggered most effectively by the unimaginable? Horror often feeds on the unknown. And the unimaginable lives up to its name. It is unimaginably cruel, unimaginably terrible, beautiful, fantastic. It is more than an ape with a razor blade could ever be.
As an author and a creator of text I constantly approach the question of how to negotiate the unimaginable. How do you handle it within your fiction? Well, not by imagining it, I would assume. And maybe it is not even the author’s task to trap the unimaginable, to drag it out of its cave and into the light. Maybe the author should simply walk in quiet circles around it for a while, measure its shadows, investigate its outline, examine its tracks.
So, let’s stay at the fringes, let’s allow them to flicker and then investigate them with as much precision as possible, because right here at the crossing between the reality we know to the cavernous gap where everything is possible, the unimaginable will reveal itself. If only for a fraction of a second we might get a glance at its true magnitude.
And if this is all a bit too obscure for you, a bit opaque, a bit cryptic I have a more concrete suggestion. Next time you take a walk in the woods, why don’t you let your eyes wander, stay alert, stay vigilant and maybe you will discover some knowing eye blinking at you right out of a knothole.
- Interestingly enough it is precisely this question that has given a name to an entire subgenre – the Whodunnit-mystery.
- He is seen as a precursor of the even more famous Sherlock Holmes
- Interestingly, its subtitle is »Tales of Ratiocination«