Twelfth Floor by Olivia Williams, is a story from Periphery 56. It can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab. The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.
Twelfth Floor by Olivia Williams is a breath of fresh air of a story. The heart of the story doesn’t come from incredible stakes, nor taking itself too seriously, but an intimate view of character. It is as charming as it is succinct at showing how meaningful stories can come from even small encounters. What I want to talk about in Twelfth Floor is what goes unsaid in a story, and how that creates meaning.
The line that sold Twelfth Floor for me was: “The elevator groaned inwardly, as it always did on the eighth floor”. So much work is done by that single line, it is a stroke of genius. The context that Jackie takes this elevator ride every day hits the reader from out of nowhere. More stunning, however, is the next realization, that all of the tension of the story is in the context that the elevator ride is something Jackie does daily. All the anxiety that comes from the other people in the elevator and a spider the size of her big toe is a daily occurrence. Those anxieties are routine for Jackie. From that single line, Jackie’s seemingly specific anxieties become generalized, her character is revealed but only through oblique detail.
The dual revelations of that line betray yet another. Williams never says Jackie works in this building, nor that she is an anxious person. Williams never says these things because she doesn’t need to. She shows how simple things cause anxiety, how those tensions weigh on Jackie, and then that they are a daily occurrence. The subtext screams these messages to reader through how Jackie sees the world, and how she acts in it. These integral aspects of the story go unsaid. They demand that reader pay attention, and put the pieces together for themselves.
Twelfth Floor is a perfect example of “The Iceberg theory” as coined by Ernest Hemmingway. Hemmingway is famous for his minimalist style, and sparse descriptions. That minimalism goes beyond syntax and diction, however. Hemmingway believed that great stories should omit important parts, and only show them through subtext and theme. A story then becomes like an iceberg where it has substance beneath what the reader can see.
The classic example of Hemmingway’s theory is his short story Hills like White Elephants. In the story a couple sits at a Spanish bar and orders beers while waiting for a train. The couple bickers before the argument gets cut off by the train arriving. A passing glance at the story leaves a reader with little to work with. The man and woman never specifically say what they are arguing about, and their curt conversation circles on itself several times. Hemmingway leaves what they are arguing about unsaid. He forces the reader to surmise what the two are talking about from generalities of their conversation. Each line becomes a clue to help the reader figure out what the couple is actually talking about. In reality the couple are arguing about whether the woman should get an abortion, and what would happen to them afterword. The reader must put that together for themselves, however.
Why is it important that integral aspects of a story go unsaid? Firstly, stories often are more realistic because of what goes unsaid. People don’t spout exposition because most of the time, both participants in a conversation already know the context. In White Elephants people commonly use euphemisms, or mask tensions by talking about other things. Each line where the couple talks about beers and the future carries the tension that they aren’t really talking about those things: that isn’t what is important to them. In Twelfth Floor Jackie would never tell strangers in an elevator that she works in the building. It wouldn’t make any sense. Secondly, the impact of leaving key aspects unsaid forces the author to show rather than tell. The extent of Jackie’s anxiety is shown through her actions. We see her struggle with routine, mundane encounters. We understand her fears even if they are out of proportion to her surroundings. We understand these things because Williams takes the time to show us. The impact of Jackie’s anxiety would be nothing if we were simply told she was anxious. In fact Williams never describes her as nervous, and only uses the word anxious to describe how Jackie thinks the spider sees her. By never overtly describing Jackie, Williams forces the reader to pay attention to her actions and make their own decision about her.
An example of the depth created by leaving Jackie’s anxieties unsaid are these two contrasting descriptions:
Jackie’s eyes wandered left, to the watery reflection of the young man. The tall, quiet shape stared back.
Jackie, trapped inside a 7 x 5 metal box with a large-sized spider and an average-height young man, inwardly screamed.
Jackie first describes the young man’s reflection as tall, only to later describe him as average height. Did she describe him as tall because he was intimidated by the stranger? She possibly saw him as larger than he really was, only to later more accurately describe him as of average height. Did she describe him as tall simply because she is short and therefore to her an average height man would seem tall to her? All of these questions can be asked to better understand Jackie. Details here have depth because of the ambiguity. If Williams had simply told us, it would have not forced the reader to examine them as closely.
Clocking in at 825 words, Twelfth Floor goes to great lengths to stay focused on the story at hand: Jackie’s elevator ride. The reader never learns about the job Jackie is going to, the setting, or even Jackie’s backstory. Despite the lack of background, Jackie feels incredibly real. Much of the reason for Jackie’s interiority is because it goes unsaid. Similar to when we meet a stranger, we only see their actions. From those actions we have to surmise an entire character. Leaving Jackie’s character unsaid give incredible depth to her actions because as a reader, we are piecing together who she is. Each detail works to show us who Jackie is. They hint at something larger about the story, something that goes unsaid.