What is delayed decoding?

Delayed decoding is a technique used by the Literary Impressionists and writers who came after. The term was coined by Ian Watt in a 1972 lecture Pink Toads and Yellow Curs: An Impressionist Narrative Device in Lord Jim. Joseph Conrad is well-known for using this technique. Lord Jim was published in 1899, but many modern lyrical writers keep it in their toolbox. It is also great for building suspense in the reader. Writers can also use this technique to create a sense of fatalism, a la American writer Annie Proulx.

A Definition of Delayed Decoding

A writer tells a story in such a way that the reader won’t understand the full extent of the situation until after reading the entire story. 

Short story writers make much use of it. This is why short stories need to be read twice.

[Delayed decoding serves] mainly to put the reader in the position of being an immediate witness in each step of the process whereby the semantic gap between the sensations aroused in the individual by an object or event, and their actual cause or meaning, was closed in their consciousness. This technique is based on the pretence that the reader’s understanding is limited to the consciousness of the fictional observer.

Literary Lexicon

American writer Annie Proulx is well-known for making use of delayed decoding. Here is Aliki Varvogli explaining the concept of delayed decoding in a book about Annie Proulx’s writing:

In Heart Songs Proulx also introduces a technique that she has used to great effect in most of her writing. She very often presents the readers with the effect long before she reveals the cause, so that various elements in each story appear inexplicable until the moment of revelation. A similar technique was used to great effect by Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, and following Conrad scholar Ian Watt, I will be referring to it as “delayed decoding”. Delayed decoding is a realistic narrative device to the extent that it mirrors the way in which we may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. As such, it creates both suspense and a sense of bewilderment when used in narrative. At the same time, however, it is also an indication of the fact that the author has control over her creation, and chooses to manipulate her material in such a way as to suggest that characters’ lives are unfolding in front of our eyes, when the truth is that their fate had been decided before the author began to write. Delayed decoding may assert the author’s power, but…it also allows the reader to interpret the text more freely.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

Delayed decoding mirrors the way in which readers may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. I believe the term ‘delayed decoding’ includes the writing technique known by all writers: ‘foreshadowing’. However, ‘foreshadowing’ focuses on a writer’s technique, whereas ‘delayed decoding’ focuses on the experience of the reader. I think it’s best described as ‘extreme foreshadowing’ — an entire paragraph or scene may not make sense on first reading. We’re not talking about brief mentions of guns here. It’s usually far more subtle than a Chekhov’s gun.

Delayed decoding describes the experience of reading a story twice and then thinking, Oh, okay, now I know why the author did that. When done well, the symbolism now fits together into a web. We see how the symbols serve the theme. Whereas the Chekhov’s Gun technique is to do with the sequence of events (the plot), audience decoding might be delayed in any aspect as determined by the author: on a symbolic level, plot level (sure), a character level, an imagic level and so on.

Stories employing this technique do require more work from the reader. When the reader is invited to ‘interpret the text more freely’, we are invited to participate in the creation of the story ourselves.

EXAMPLE: JOSEPH CONRAD

Well-known examples I’ve seen mentioned:

  • In Heart of Darkness (1899) Marlow sees ‘sticks’ which he soon views as arrows.
  • In “Youth” Marlow is blown up.
  • In “The Idiots” the cliff moves from under Susan Bacadou’s feet.

These are all examples of Joseph Conrad avoiding a narration of events, instead forcing the reader into the narrator’s place. The effect: Readers experience phenomena as the narrator does, and the experience feels simultaneous.

EXAMPLE: “RUNAWAY”

Alice Munro delays our decoding of “Runaway” in relation to the character of Clark.

On my second reading of “Runaway” by Alice Munro it’snow clear that Clark is abusing the animals. He neglects the boarding horses, but is taking his frustration out on the goat, who in Carla’s dream has a hurt leg. But is the dream based on fear and on reality? When I first read it, it’s just a dream. (In short stories especially, dreams are never ‘just dreams’.) We are given another clue to the abuse when the goat likes Clark at first then attaches itself to Carla, henceforth less skittish. By the time Carla wonders if Clark has killed the goat, we know it to be true. Looking back on the story, or re-reading it, we know we were being told all along. We weren’t able to decode the full story at first. Our full understanding was delayed.

Here is a reader describing delayed decoding in a review of “Runaway”, by comparing it to the master chessplayer’s technique of making endgame studies:

After some thought, I find a metaphor which sums up my own feelings [about “Runaway”]. It’s true that a Munro story can seem just a little too perfect. Everything fits together so elegantly; there is nothing wasted. A non-chessplayer might compare it to a chess game. But for someone who does play chess, the image doesn’t work. A normal chess game is like a novel. It’s a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, where things often go in unexpected directions and painfully have to be put back on track. Novelists can never quite control their characters (Proust somehow ended up putting in a couple more books than he had originally intended), and chessplayers have an even harder time controlling their pieces. 

There is a small group of people in the chess world, however, who do something which feels more rewarding to them than playing games; they compose endgame studies. A study is a chess idea expressed in its purest form. Every piece is necessary, and there is only one sequence of moves that achieves the desired result, given best defence. If White’s task is to win, then he has only one way to win, and if it is to draw, then he only has one way to draw. The composer has a key position in mind, which possesses some unusual or beautiful property. At first, the arrangement of the pieces appears pointless; but finally the solver realizes that in just this case a knight is worth more than a queen, or the king finds itself miraculously stalemated in the middle of the board, and they see what the composer is doing.

A Munro story feels to me rather like a study. There is a small group of people and a set of relationships between them. Nothing seems out of the ordinary. But somehow, as the story unfolds, a logical but completely unexpected scene arises. A woman with psychic powers, baking little dough mice in an institution; or a child, with a winter coat over her pyjamas, standing shivering in a snowdrift and helping scatter ashes. You suddenly understand that this is what the story was about.

Very few chessplayers are able to create worthwhile studies. I think Munro’s gift is similar, and just as rare.

Manny at Goodreads

EXAMPLE: THE PIANO (FILM)

In an early scene of Jane Campion’s The Piano, Flora unwittingly gossips about her own mother to the neighbourhood busybody and her adult (but naive) daughter. “That’s a very strong opinion,” says Aunt Morag, a Mrs Lynde archetype, who has the potential to be either an ally or an opponent to Ada. “I know,” replies little Flora, thinking herself one of the grown-ups, “It’s unholy.”

At the time, the audience will be amused by this conversation for its earnest precocity. (Aunt Morag and her daughter are also comedic archetypes — gossiping village wives.) But this scene is a storytelling example of delayed decoding: Only in hindsight do we understand its significance. Despite their very close mother-daughter relationship, this was Campion showing us that Flora was always capable of selling her mother out.

EXAMPLE: “NEGATIVES”

Let’s return to Annie Proulx. Near the end of Proulx’s short story “Negatives“, at the part of the story where characters (or readers) undergo some kind of self-revelation, readers learn the reason Buck can suddenly see (literally, through binoculars) what Walter is like is because the land between his rich house and the poor house has been newly cleared. Now we know why Proulx told us, as a part of all her beautiful scenery descriptions, why all those loggers had come into town. The following detail was planted for a plot purpose, not just to flesh out the scenery:

Through binoculars Buck watched loggers clear-cut the mountain’s slope, and Albina Muth slept in the Mercedes every night.

Readers didn’t understand the significance of that sentence until reaching the end of the story, in a beautiful example of delayed decoding.

EXAMPLE: “THE SHAWL”

Sometimes the decoding is so delayed it only happens if the reader continues on to the sequel. “The Shawl” is a Holocaust short story by Cynthia Ozick seems to be about a mother and two daughters. Only after reading the sequel short story “Rosa”, published three years later, do we learn that this is a story of a mother, her baby and fourteen-year-old niece, and that the baby is a result of a rape by a German soldier.

In this case, the writer can’t assume every reader will go on to the sequel, so the story has to stand on its own, and the writer has to be content with the reader decoding the story as it appears in its partial form, while also making it feel complete.