Last weekend, I rewatched Donnie Darko. I can confirm that it hasn’t just held up in the 12 years or so since I first saw it; it’s gotten better. As I pulled up the obligatory articles post-movie to remind myself (and explain to our friends) who the Manipulated Dead and Manipulated Living are and what the heck an Ensurance Trap is and the rest of the crazy-arbitrary rules of the Tangent Universe, it occurred to me: This is all a blast, but it’s not why I love the movie.
I loved Donnie Darko before I had a clue what was really happening in it, because as a film, it works on a much more basic level than wacky metaphysical mindtrip. At ground zero, it’s a story about a lonely, isolated high school kid who’s trying to find direction and purpose while contending with a bunch of grade-A Weird Shit that keeps happening to him. He’s helped along in this process by certain people and hindered by others, all of whom are compelling, revolting and/or hilarious for different reasons. The writing is snappy, the atmosphere is by turns sarcastic, earnest, and terrifying – and that’s enough. You don’t need to map Roberta Sparrow’s The Philosophy of Time Travel onto the movie in order to enjoy the tenor of the various human dynamics at play (and that elegiac score). When you reach the end of the movie, you’re conscious of the fact that Donnie has made an enormous sacrifice even if you aren’t entirely sure why he had to do it. And by the time you’re knee-deep in other people’s theories about WTF Really Happened, you realize: Damn, more than one of these interpretations work on some level.
Because the narrative has left room for them all.
That’s it, was my epiphany over the weekend. That’s the kind of storyteller I want to be. I want to leave the same kind of narrative space for my readers. I want to invite them to piece together a glorious puzzle if they’re up for the challenge, but if they’re not, no big deal. My stories should function just as well on a fundamental, experiential level as they do when you stop to think about them.
Making that magic happen as a writer entails not explaining everything. It means letting go of a chunk of exposition in favor of a character moment; focusing scenes on human reactions and interactions when the authorial temptation is to force readers to process this plot point or check out this cool factoid about my world.
Unless and until I’m feeling a story’s characters, I don’t care about its plot. Yet for some reason, it’s taken me awhile to allow this wisdom to drive my own writing.
Taking away everything that’s not absolutely essential to who the characters are and what they care about can be a scary prospect for a writer. It means accepting that huge chunks of worldbuilding and story logic might have to live in the shadows for the majority (or even entirety) of the journey.
The truth is, that’s often the best place for it.
Mystery is a part of life, so it should be a part of storytelling, too; not every question that’s raised needs to have a definitive answer. As long as people feel a larger, more complicated world pushing in at the edges of a character’s POV, writers can leave that space intact, trust it, and even manipulate it.
I can make my story about people being people first, and let everything else rest a layer below, contributing to the mood and setting and themes and even the architecture of it all, but never flailing for attention.
It’s a tough lesson to learn this late in the game, but it’s turning chapters that make me want to pull my hair out into chapters I love.
Naturally, it’s good advice for life, too:
Create space for what matters. More than you think you need.
Let the rest go.