Orient Expression

9 October, 2008

The persuasive power of nothing

Filed under: Cambridge — pyrotyger @ 5:45 pm
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Always leave them wanting more…

If you can tell me who said it, you get a gold star. I mean, who originally said it. A 10 minute trawl of Google, Wikiquote and a whole raft of Quotations databases has turned up nothing but half-remembered film-quotes and the occasional educated guess.

Someone said it was Walt Disney, but if his early films are anything to go by then it’s certainly not a maxim he employed much. Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s nothing more rounded-off and wholesome than a Disney film, and that doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the phrase.

No, I think the implication is that you should never try to completely satisfy someone if you want them hooked; just give them enough of what they want to enjoy it, and hint at the promise of more to come. That’s the essence of desire, as any established flirt, stage-magician or heroin-addict will tell you. It’s the secret of every burlesque show, the art of the thriller-movie, and the only possible excuse for that shambolic ’80s fashion of nouvelle cuisine.

It sounds vaguely P.T. Barnum-esque in style, but not in spirit – there’s no mercenary edge to it, and Barnum would quite happily have satisfied your every craving for a steep price given the opportunity. It’s not even Machiavellian, although manipulation is of course the purpose.

Give them a little of what they want – but not enough to lose their attention. I feed my cat with enough to make him healthy and athletic, without satisfying his every craving – for there lies the road to the sack-of-porridge look of spoiled house-cats everywhere – and his interest in me is seldom stronger than when he’s had enough to enjoy it, but not enough to lose the taste.

Budding authors would do well to take note of the instruction, I think. There are many skilled novelists and playwrites who can give you a really satisfying yarn, rich in detail and full of exposition; but the best – the true craftsmen – will only hint at the truth, will give it form but not definition, will point you at the heart of a matter and say “look, it’s right in front of you…” but will never actually spell it out.
Some of the greatest works of art are not photo-realistic reproductions of real or imagined scenes, but are impressions or outlines, with just enough detail for the mind to fill in the rest.

As Pratchett explains in his recent bestseller Going Postal, the true art of the forger is not in perfection, but in suggestion. Present enough detail to suggest the real thing, he notes, and the human imagination will gladly do the rest, rejecting a perfect forgery but happily accepting one that is far less accurate, because the mind will not notice a discrepancy when it has conjured the detail itself…

So, then, desire is a function of our curiosity, not of our needs. It springs from the human need to wonder: what is behind the next door?, or what happened next?, or – tragically – what would it be like with someone else? I will never forget reading an article in New Scientist some years ago, which sought to explain the neurochemical mechanism of addiction. As an important aside, it was noted that heroin’s dangerously potent addictiveness springs not from its effects on the pleasure centres, but from the fact that it chemically simulates desire. When the drug reaches the brain, it floods the synaptic gaps with chemicals that scream “I want this!!” rather than “I like this!!”

These thoughts came to me when writing my UCAS Personal Statement. This is a university-applicant’s open audition, a 47-line window through which one must sufficiently impress or intrigue the admissions tutors for them to invite you to interview. It’s easy to talk about yourself if you have the confidence, but when presented with a 4000-character (not word) limit, I had to ask myself: What am I trying to achieve here?

The answer was quite obvious. I wanted an interview. There are ways of achieving that goal, but the fundamental purpose of my prose has to be this: Make Them Want More.
That’s right. Always leave them wanting more, kiddo. If you can get that hook in someone’s head, you’ll always have an opening for the future.

As far as I can imagine, there are three ways to achieve this:

  1. Knock their socks off. The masterful authors, musicians, artists and craftsmen of the world can do their thing, give you the very best, and leave you changed. That sort of profound work will always stay in your mind, and that’s a certain way to win someone’s interest. But there are limits to what you can say about yourself, especially in 47 lines, and if I could do that I would be an author.
  2. The Cliffhanger. Device of every literary and cinematic hack out there, and not very elegant. It’s easy to get it wrong and just frustrate your audience, leaving them thinking “So where’s the rest of the story? Did you miss a reel…?” Besides, it’s hardly appropriate in the circumstances. Definitely not.
  3. The subtle art of suggestion. Make allusions to bigger topics. Indicate your intentions and interests, but don’t describe them exhaustively. The ripe fruit of outlined potential is tempting indeed and, just as importantly in the circumstances, it’s economical! Let the audience pick up on what interests them, and they’ll want to know more. If they don’t, you haven’t wasted a paragraph explaining why taiko excites you so much, or exactly what depth of understanding you’ve developed of generational conflict in Japanese cinema. If they want to know more, they can ask – and ask they will. That’s what the interview is for, after all…

So I’ve pretty much finished my personal statement. All of the above is just rash theory and extemporisation after the fact – I write how I write, in a way that makes sense to me at the time given the context and the audience, and then try to understand why I felt compelled to do it so. It always seems to work, which suggests to me that I have sufficient natural facility for language and persuasion to get it right (or at least, right enough), and I make no apologies for that. If I have a gift for expression then nobody could accuse me of resting on my laurels now.

Wish me luck, one and all. I’ll let you know what happens, however it pans out.

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