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Monday, March 28, 2016

Punctum: Say Something

Chris Hondros – War
Image Description: soldier on a bridge without a shirt jumping in a war zone
with a smile on their face and a gun in their hand.
Note: This is part of an ongoing series about an aspect of art that is painfully difficult and famously slippery to try to explain, and is often easier to simply give examples of.

It's called the punctum. And it has nothing to do with your tear ducts–at least not when it comes to art.

Here is an earlier article about punctum.

It is an element within a work of art that either breaks the tone or exacerbates it to an exquisite, puncturing point. And if that sounds like meaningless post-modern bullshit, you're not alone in being confused. It's really hard to describe the punctum because it's such a tough concept to define. But it's not hard to point to something and say "THAT! That's punctum!"

Take this picture. In the midst of what is probably some kind of war zone with gunfire smoke thick in the air, we see a soldier holding a sub-machine gun and jumping with a smile on his face. How many millions of gunfire-smoke filled pictures have you seen from war ravaged spots? Probably so many they hardly even penetrate your heart anymore. It's not that your heart is cold and dead and unable to feel. It's just that everything in those pictures is establishing one emotion (in photography it's often called the studium). However, the presence of this jumping, smiling guy, it just....changes the whole thing. It somehow takes away from the gravitas of the immediate, but at the same time makes the whole subject more poignant. Now he's not just one more grim face. He has survived another day. Now he's a little more human and the tragedy of the whole thing resonates harder.

Or is he crueler? Enjoying the battle? Being less humane? Bringing out the subject matter of the rest of the picture by not languishing in it, but enjoying it?

Maybe someone with more research skills knows "the answer," but it's a perfect example of punctum.

Here's another one. To get this one, I had to do some deep Internet digging and listen to a pop song about six million times. I'm now hearing it in my sleep. But nothing is too much for all of you! Some people have said that I'm hearing things with this "read." Others went wide eyed and said it was spot on. Maybe I'm chasing shadows, but if I'm not, here's a good example.

Unless you live in a cave or never do radio, you've probably heard A Great Big World's version of Say Something. Just in case, here it is: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2U0Ivkn2Ds).  You'll notice that there's an extremely enunciated "I'm givING up on you." This will actually be the way it is sung in almost every single version you can find. In case you aren't familiar with the song, it's a duet but the people aren't really singing TO each other. Each one is giving up on the relationship and waiting for the other to make the first step to some kind of reconnection or reconciliation. It's a tragic and common tale in break-ups where both parties feel aggrieved, and each might be willing to keep working if only the other would only come back to the table with an olive branch. Neither does–each waiting on the other–until it's too late.

However, I want to talk about how Sam Redden chose to sing it. First take a listen:

Did you hear it?

When Sam is singing the solo parts of this song, he lets his enunciation slip on "giving"...a lot. It's so crisp in the source song, but he lets it slide. Actually it kind of sounds more like he's saying "Given," which is the past participle. It alludes to the idea that his decision is already made. "Given up." And it changes everything about the tone of this song.

There's no WAY this is an accident.

First of all, the enunciation is so clear in the other versions. Probably to avoid exactly this confusion. When you make a cover of a song that has such a crisp and conscious choice, changing it is absolutely a decision. Secondly, the female vocalist (who I could not find the name of to save my life, and I'm sorry and annoyed about that) is enunciating her "ING" quite well. But here's the real kicker. In the middle of the song, when they're singing together, Redden and the other singer are actually saying the word differently. That's a mistake a first-year high school choir student would notice–unless of course it's not a mistake at all. The Redden version also makes one other very conscious decision from the A Great Big World version and most other covers. Instead of both singers ending the song as a duet, the woman drops out and Redden sings the end solo. This highlights the choice.

(The lyrics are even in the link, and it says "giving," so take this interpretation with a grain of salt.)

But IF it's true, from this ONE TINY little syllable being said differently (by only one of the parts), we get the portrayal of an entirely different relationship dynamic. Here is a guy who is done. But the woman is still in the process of letting go and threatening to leave if nothing is said. And instead of just walking out, the guy is pretending that he too is still hanging on.

For her, she is waiting for him to say something. But for him, nothing she says would matter.

So how does the punctum show up in writing? And how can a writer incorporate something so subtle yet important? Well, let's look at this opening line by Orsino in Twelfth Night by Shakespeare.

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

Here's Orsino, who Shakespeare is lampooning for being more sentimental and florid about the idea of love than actually feeling love itself. (Shakespeare does this a lot.) He's talking about listening to love songs so long that his love grows, but the second part of the quote carries the metaphor into this idea that too much of the music can make one disgusted. Ostensibly too much food, but the metaphor is about love and he goes on to say that the spirit of love can also be overwhelmed. But now look at that last line. What Orsino is saying is that the idea of love is itself a fantasy.

Think about that in terms of everything that Orsino just said and the entire play that is to come.

Orsino gives away the game in the FIRST LINE of this play. Not only is he more in love with the idea of love, but he KNOWS it's bullshit. The entire play takes on an entirely new meaning (slightly more whimsical, and quite a bit more fucked up considering what happens) now that we realize that Orsino is actually fully aware that he is less interested in Olivia than simply the game and the chase and the spurious emotions of courtship. That simple line: "That it alone is high fantastical." changes the whole character of the play.

It might be difficult to consciously add punctum to a piece of writing, but if you know what you're looking for, you can tease it out through the process of revision. Don't be afraid to let your characters show that they are deeper (or more shallow) than you might have thought.

And don't be afraid to trust your audience. You don't need to hammer them over the head with winks and nudges. One tiny line. One ambiguous word. One tiny pinprick in the totality of your writing is all it takes to change....everything.

That is the punctum.

I leave you with the favorite cover I found when digging through versions of "Say Something." And yes, the first singer does the punctum I mentioned above. Though interestingly enough, both singers are basically saying givEN. This tiny choice actually changes the meaning again.  Now it has the tragic feel of a relationship where both parties have checked out but are trying to get the other one to care enough to try to get them to stay–a mirror to the all too common break-up situation where even though two people are leaving something mutually, each one wants to know the other wanted them, and will be torn up by their absence.


  1. Sure love me a good Shakespeare shout out.
    Great point, (ha,ha) always thoroughly enjoy these insights into aspects of writing I might not otherwise really analyze past face value.

    Great writing, keep it up!

  2. "...we get the portrayal of an entirely different relationship dynamic. Here is a guy who is done. But the woman is still in the process of letting go and threatening to leave if nothing is said. And instead of just walking out, the guy is pretending that he too is still hanging on."

    Hey, woah, I came here to read about writing, not to get called out for the exact situation I'm in with my spouse. I made it through A Great Big World's version just fine, but Sam Redden brought me to tears. It doesn't matter that this is a 4-year-old blog post, it's still totally uncalled for.