UNDERSTATEMENT – from ‘Dear Writer Revisited’ 


One of the most useful and powerful devices for the fiction writer is understatement. You tell the reader less so that the reader knows more. Instead of having everything spelt out, the reader is given, in a very careful way, just enough information for the imagination to go to work. From understatement the reader can derive great pleasure and satisfaction.

In popular fiction, and in romantic fiction, for instance, understatement is rarely used. This kind of fiction is often an exercise in overstatement. I will give you an example of overstatement from a romantic novel, and then two examples of understatement. All three pieces of writing are meant to give the reader an image of a man and a woman embracing. The images in the second and third “literary” examples are achieved only in the mind of the reader, whereas in the first one the romantic writer explains things graphically for the reader. Many readers love this kind of writing. How you do things depends on what effect you are aiming for. I generally prefer understatement myself.


“He advanced towards her with a purposeful expression, and she backed away, laughing, trying without success to ward him off with her hands. He caught her to him and kissed her, bending her dramatically over his arm like a twenties film heroine, and exploring her lips unmercifully until she could do nothing but wind her arms around his neck and kiss him back.”

—Daphne Clair


“And by the harbour, in the midst of the wagons and barrels, at every street corner, the citizens opened their eyes wide in amazement at the spectacle, so extraordinary in a provincial town, of a carriage with drawn blinds, continually reappearing, sealed tighter than a tomb and being buffeted about like a ship at sea. Once, in the middle of the day, when they were right out in the country and the sun was beating down at its fiercest on the old silver-plated carriage-lamps, an ungloved hand stole out beneath the little yellow canvas blinds and tossed away some scraps of paper, which were carried off on the wind and landed like white butterflies in a field of red clover in full bloom. At about six o’clock the cab drew up in a side-street in the Beauvoisine quarter, and a woman got out; she walked away with her veil lowered, and without a backward glance.”

—Gustave Flaubert

“In town, the lights were going on, and we were sitting on the bank on the other side of the river, and we were full of what they call love, that rough discovering and seeking of each other, that sharp taste of one another—you know, love.”

—Italo Calvino

Of the Flaubert quotation from ‘Madame Bovary’ I think it’s fair to say that once you have read it, you will never forget it. The imagery is so vivid and sexual, and your imagination is given the chance to see what is going on inside the carriage without your being told about who did what to whom.

Take a scene from your work, and rewrite it in two ways, first using overstatement and then understatement. You will see how dramatically the use of understatement can affect your work. You could try showing the two versions to your potential readers to see how each version is received. Don’t be surprised if people seem to prefer the overstated version. Reading understatement requires the reader to do more work than reading overstatement. It depends on which kind of readers you are looking for, but it also depends on what kind of stories you want to write, and what kind of stories you enjoy reading most yourself.

This is an extract from ‘Dear Writer Revisited’ published 2014 by Spineless Wonders

Now Ida Haunts the Car Park

In November 2017 I was invited to launch an art exhibition inspired by the motifs of fairy tales. In a glass cabinet there was a book illustrated by Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, an illustrator of the early twentieth century. Here is a story I wrote about Ida, first published by Bruce Pascoe in ‘Australian Short Stories’ in 1994.


In certain lights you can see the impression of a vanished building hanging in the air. The towers and turrets and chimneys of what appears to be a fairy castle may come into view in the mad blue flash of lightning or at the turning point of dusk or dawn. You look up, uncertain of what you have seen, and it is gone, a fanciful silver image fading on the square reality of day, the strange obscurity of night. You imagine you might have glimpsed movement behind the tower window – a hand, the turn of a head, the gentle swaying of a velvet curtain. In the very dead of night it is sometimes possible to catch on the ear the sound of vanished laughter or the faintest tinkle of a bell.


A paving stone under your foot tells you in bold gold type that on this site there stood a college for young ladies, founded, it says on the stone, in 1875, demolished in 1966. In place of the absent castle is a vast white assembly hall where gatherings of men meet to perform occult rituals. Nearby, the Day Procedure Centre of a hospital in which human babies can be brought into being by astonishing modern technology and thought.


Deep in the earth underneath these visible buildings is a place for parking cars, a kind of layer cake joined through the middle by an elevator. The elevator has a voice all of its own, a disconcerting hollow voice, announcing in its strange blank way the names of all the elevator’s destinations, such as ‘basement three’ or ‘ground level’. Underneath the very bottom of the car park is a little stream of running water which connects this world with the next.


Young ladies who vanished long ago, taking their easels and their violins and their tennis racquets, sometimes come back to this place of happy memory, of former life. Girls such as Ida or Nellie or Henry – an odd name for a girl, but she is a writer, and the times being what they are or were, she felt the need for a man’s name in a man’s world. In one of Henry’s books she told the story of her schooldays – the title of the book was The Getting of Wisdom. These days Henry haunts the State Library where she is doing the research for a trilogy to be published at the turn of the present century. It will be a great Australian saga (inspired by events that have taken place since 1950) produced on CD rom. The title of this one is, you will have guessed, The Forgetting of Wisdom.


Nellie is an opera singer who was celebrated throughout the world. On odd occasions she has spent an evening in the car park elevator, singing the ‘basement one-two-three’ and ‘ground level’ lyrics to the astonishment of the public. Many of the people who heard her were returning from the bars nearby, and so they were inclined to treat her as an hallucination, a large woman in a beaded gown singing in the elevator. In nineteen hundred and seven, Nellie was the President of the Old Collegians Association, and when she materialised on the other side she was re-elected to this position for eternity. The Association is one of the most active organisations on the other side of the water. It is in fact as a member of the Old Collegians that Ida haunts the car park. It is her job to see that the presence of the old school is maintained on the spot.


Ida is a painter. She does delicate pictures of fairies with the fabulous wings of butterflies and other insects. She has illustrated books for children, and once was asked to paint her joyful pictures on the walls of schools and hospitals. Dressed as a fairy in a dark blue tea-gown, she haunts the hospital and the car park. There is a bright hint of mischief in her eyes which sparkle. She carries a large handbag that is shaped like a butterfly’s wing, embroidered with silks the colour of the sunset and studded with sapphires from the heavens and pearls from the depths of the sea. In her handbag she keeps a wand made from a long stalk of evening primrose, and a telephone of morning glory. The technology of these things is primitive in the extreme – the telephone must be connected to the bright blue fire extinguishers in the car park before it will work. The evening primrose has the power, when waved, to stop the elevator between floors. Before doing a tour of the hospital, Ida always gives Nellie a call to let her know she has arrived safely.


Ida’s outline behaves like that of the old school building – now you see her, now you don’t. However, one day she discovered that people who are suffering from the pain of a lost love are gifted with the sight to see her in all her radiance and beauty.


She was standing in the elevator, wincing at the hollow sound of ‘basement three’ when a distinguished-looking fellow with silver hair and sad pale eyes got in. The white silk scarf around his neck slipped and slithered to the floor. He seemed distracted, didn’t appear to notice that the scarf had fallen. Without thinking, Ida stooped down and picked it up. She then realised he could see her, and she knew therefore he must be suffering. She handed him the scarf, he smiled sadly, the corners of his lovely eyes crinkling as he did so. Ida’s heart missed a beat and she felt she had to act at once. She whisked out her evening primrose and there, between the ground and basement one, the elevator settled gently to a halt.


‘I do believe we’re stuck,’ he said. And he began to press the buttons on the wall. Nothing happened. They introduced themselves – his name was Lawrence, Lawrence Honey – and he explained he was on his way to Lodge. Which Lodge is that, she asked in innocence, and he told her he belonged to a society called the Invisible Lodge. She said she liked the name of that, and then she explained she was a volunteer, a visitor to the hospital. He said he hoped she didn’t suffer from claustrophobia, stuck there in the elevator, hanging by a thread between the floors. She said she wasn’t frightened. My ex-wife, he said, and tears came to his eyes, my ex-wife Georgina was terrified of things like this. She was very young – always insisted that we use the stairs. As you can see, I miss her. You must excuse me, he added, and took out his handkerchief and wiped away his tears, and then he opened up his attache case and took out a silver flask from which he drank. A nip? he said, and handed it to Ida. She took a swig of brandy and felt it go straight to her head. They both began to laugh, and then he offered her a bite of his peanut butter sandwich. My secretary, he said, always insists that I bring a sandwich with me on Lodge night. She’s a most practical woman – makes the sandwich for me. I think you’ll find it satisfactory. And it was.


We’re moving – are we moving? he said this several times and Ida felt it prudent to give the evening primrose an imperceptible wave. The elevator slid gently into motion and they arrived at the ground floor. The security guard at the front desk woke up from a little dream he had been having, unaware that on his elevator monitor he had just missed something that resembled a scene from a silent movie – a man and a woman both in evening dress having a sort of picnic between floors.


Ida found that her imagination was gripped by Lawrence. Ida had fallen in love in that brief time between the ground floor and basement one. She was moved also by the thought of the obvious cruelty of his ex-wife Georgina. Ida would comfort Lawrence; he would not have to weep again. She dashed down to a fire extinguisher and plugged in her morning glory. Nellie, Nellie, she said, all excitement. I’m bringing someone home to dinner. A simply lovely man. I met him in the elevator on his way to Lodge. Do we have cognac – I think he would like that.


It is a coincidence, Ida said to Lawrence in the elevator when he was going home after Lodge, that we should meet again. They both laughed and hoped the thing wouldn’t stick between the floors. You have your car? he said, and Ida said that actually she didn’t have a car – had something else to show him. Perhaps he didn’t realise, but the very latest thing to do was to travel round the city by underground waterway. He said he thought he had read about it somewhere. Perhaps is was in the colour supplement of the Saturday paper.


Lawrence Honey, as if in a trance, stepped into the rowing boat. He felt a drowsy humming feeling running through his blood. The beautiful woman, so reminiscent of a fairy from a ballet or a picture book, took the oars, and smiled. He smiled. The small black attache case of the Invisible Lodge slipped silently from his hand into the water.


They found the attache case caught in weeds some miles downstream. They never found a body. Vanished into thin air. The white silk scarf embroidered with Lawrence’s own secret symbol turned up at the State Library some years later. A baby boy who was manufactured in the hospital was named Lawrence Honey Hamilton in a gesture of reparation for the man who disappeared. And in certain lights you can imagine that you see a gorgeous fairy and a man in evening dress as they step into a little rowing boat on the water underneath the car park that is underneath the Day Procedure Centre.



Rose of Jericho – remembering war – November 11, 2017


Beside a few delicate teacups and a piece of scrimshaw, on a shelf in a glass-fronted cabinet, my mother kept a pepperpot. It was of classic Georgian shape, a tiny phallic basilica of a thing, not silver, but made from dark golden imitation wood, intricately carved with designs of multiform roses. You unscrewed the dome and put in the ground pepper; but it you unscrewed the base you found a secret compartment in which my mother kept a treasured twig. This twig was a small shrivelled claw from a bush called the Rose of Jericho, and it came from somewhere in the Middle East, a souvenir brought home to Tasmania from the First World War by an uncle.

Take the twig from its hiding-place and submerge it in water for about twenty minutes. The dried-up claw, in the water, gradually opens out, stretches tendrils, until it blossoms, resembles a freshly-picked bunch of soft brown herb. Tiny bubbles of ancient air bead the delicate branches. Then take it out of the water, let it dry, and when it is utterly shrivelled and dead, replace it in the secret compartment. Return the pepper-pot to its place in the cabinet.

So the Rose of Jericho is now in my possession. I keep it in a cupboard with such things as old prayer-books and a pair of small white china hands. I removed these hands from my grandmother’s grave after vandals had trashed all the ornaments, leaving the hands behind. Whenever I take the twig from its hiding-place and let it come to life again, like a beloved piece of music, played over and over, it can make me stop quite still, make me hold my breath, stare in simple amazement. And it can trigger memories long rested. Sometimes I remember to bring it to life on November 11, when many Australians remember wars, in particular the two world wars.