Action, Thought and History


One or two comments recently have set me thinking about the ways in which we approach the past, whether that’s through factual history or historical fiction. This matters because fashions in presenting historical ideas inevitably condition what will be presented — and what will not. In the past, verbal presentation was assumed, so the written ‘historical’ record often took precedence over those periods in the past for which no written records survive. Greeks and Romans were ‘civilised’, because they wrote their ideas down; Celts and Germanic tribes were barbarians because they did not.

Visual or Verbal?

Today’s culture has become more and more ‘action-focused’ and visual. Whether in the visual media or the written word, it seems that we must be shown everything. It is not enough to explain how people dressed in the past: the presenter must dress up in the appropriate garb. Instead of telling us that an army marched from A to B, we must be shown moving dots on a map, marching legs — in the style of the age, of course — or re-enactors marching around a modern field. The fact that an actual battle may have involved thousands of fighters, many poorly dressed, wounded, dirty, confused or plain terrified seems to count for little beside the opportunity to show nice, clean 21st-century folk having fun dressing up and pretending to be their remote forbears.

Now this is harmless fun — so long as it isn’t taken too seriously. What does bother me is that actual history — whether in non-fiction or fiction — relies almost entirely on thought, description, understanding and — most of all — imagination. Forget that and history is dead and gone.

Let’s be plain. You can attempt to show historical action as honestly and realistically as you know how, but you will always fall short in these critically important ways.

Narrowness of Interpretation

First, displays of action can only ever be based on a single interpretation of what happened all those years ago. To show another possible understanding of the event, you will need to re-wind to the start and run it through a second time, with different elements to the fore. To consider a third, you have to start all over again. Clearly that’s impossible. Neither your budget nor your viewers’ or listeners’ attention would stand the strain.

The truth is that we never know for sure precisely what happened in almost every important situation from the past. Every view is an interpretation. Every one may be challenged — and probably will be.

Pick up a serious history book from, say, fifty years ago and compare it with one written today and the differences will jump out at you. In place of dense text, full of arguments, reasoning, examples and explanations, you will find visual and descriptive items like charts, graphs, tables and illustrations. Proofs, the author hopes, not arguments.

The written word excels precisely where visual and action-oriented portrayals fail. It can be used to explain the limits of an interpretation and the basis on which it has been proposed; to review alternatives; and to trace the logic by which the writer’s decisions have been made. History is not science, which is based on data collection,  experiment, demonstration and prediction. History may use and accumulate data, but understanding that information always relies on subsequent reasoning and argument. There is no other way, since we cannot replicate the past exactly — especially the thought-patterns and preconceptions that people used in the past to understand their world.

Unintended Omissions

When I write, I can explain that some key player was uncertain what to do. I can set things in the context of the time. I can tell you what may have been going through his or her mind; why each element of the decision mattered and how; and what thought-processes may have been used to come to a final choice.

Try doing that through action you can see or hear! Sure, the actor can wear a puzzled face. You can resort to flash-backs or voice-overs to represent the internal workings in his mind. Yet, once again, the viewers’ or listeners’ attention-span will not run to too much of either. And once you reach that limit — which is quite small — everything else has to be omitted, even if it is important.

Distorted Focus

In the constant desire to ‘show, not tell’, directors, screen-writers and even novelists distort the focus of events, deliberately or not. Whatever works best visually is selected. What takes explanation, thought or reflection is omitted.

The best examples of this come from fiction. In how many ‘mystery novels’ today do you find a scene in which the protagonist finds him or herself alone with the villain, usually about to be silenced for ever? Now, sometimes it’s done moderately realistically, but those are the exceptions. In many, many cases, the writer has to make their protagonist stupid to the point of idiocy to bring about the desired confrontation. They chase after homicidal maniacs, alone and armed with nothing beyond the conviction that the book’s hero or heroine can’t actually be killed before the end. They think there may be a murderer lurking amongst the trees, so they walk over to take a look.

Even in non-fiction, the focus may be subconsciously switched away from the ideas or thoughts characteristic of the period towards something much more easily displayed in visual terms. The late 18th century was a period of enormous tension and conflict. Much easier, of course, to show starving labourers rioting for lower bread prices — or fat, red-faced squires grinding the faces of the local poor — than to represent the true muddle of reasons — pragmatic, political, religious and even philanthropic — that lay behind decades of sometimes violent unrest. Action works best with black versus white; reality comes in 5000 and more shades of grey.

My Plea

History is, by its very nature, an intellectual activity. We cannot recreate the past in real time in any but the most superficial ways. To attempt to understand the past demands thought and imagination in copious amounts. The best you can show is only ever the outcome of these mental activities, based on a single viewpoint and understanding.

In fiction as well, the most long-lasting books are generally those where a strong story-line is married to an ambiguous context and characters whose personalities are never wholly revealed. That way, generation after generation of readers can have the pleasure of creating their own mental images of persons and events. My Mr Darcy is not your Mr Darcy. My Elizabeth Bennett is not yours, save superficially. My Gandalf looks and thinks and sees his world in ways that differ from yours, as my background and experiences colour my thinking. Force it all into a single representation and most people will walk away dissatisfied. “That’s not how it was! That character would never have looked, spoken, acted or expressed the story in that way.”

For fun, I write historical mysteries. I don’t write thrillers. I don’t like them and I won’t make my characters behave in silly ways just to increase the ‘dramatic tension’, or provide cliff-hangers at prescribed points in the story. Mysteries are mental puzzles, as the mystery writers of the ‘Golden Age’ understood very well.

Poirot uses his ‘little grey cells’. He isn’t James Bond. He doesn’t fight the villain on a moving train or drop from a helicopter to rescue some dim-witted girl who’s got into a mess. Lord Peter Wimsey thinks, discovers, reflects and discusses ideas for a solution. He doesn’t go up to his chief suspect, alone and in a deserted place, tell him he knows he did it, then express surprise that the suspect draws a gun and chases him to the edge of a cliff. Nor does the murderer, once he or she has the protagonist at their mercy, stop to confess all the details of the crime before pulling the trigger, thus allowing the rescue party to arrive in the nick of time. The typical ending of a mystery is for the ‘detective’ to explain, in words, how and why the murderer committed the crime — then who it must be. Mystery solved.

You don’t have to like this approach. You can choose a thriller instead, or a romance, or any other type of novel. You can avoid fiction altogether. But that changes nothing about the mystery form. A mystery is a mystery is a mystery; and none of those other types of story.

Let’s be plain. In the real world of history, if the good guys give the bad guys an advantage, they’ll end on the losing side. Even tyrants, like Henry VIII, didn’t act without thought and planning, just to make sure no one got the better of them. Nor did they act in ways characteristic of 500 years after their deaths, however complex and challenging it is to project our thoughts back into the mind-set of, say, mediaeval times or the religious wars of the seventeenth century.

So … three cheers for thought, imagination and the chance to use the exploration of the past to challenge today’s unthinking, casual assumptions.

And to hell with ‘show, not tell’!

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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