It’s not often you think about it, but all storytelling techniques have been “invented” once. Most of the time, however, for natural reasons, it cannot be traced back to a specific person. Most of it has obviously come about through tradition, inspiration and loan after loan between different authors. But sometimes you can still sense the start of a technology, which was rare before that. Delayed decoding is one such.

It can be translated as “delayed decipherment” or “postponed interpretation”. One writer who is said to have invented this particular storytelling technique is Joseph Conrad. The technique is based on me as a reader only receiving the sensory experiences of the narrator, without having them interpreted for me by the author. One of the more famous examples is when Captain Marlow, in Conrad’s 1899 novel “Heart of Darkness”, steers up a river and is forced to navigate past a large log in the middle of the channel. During his deep concentration on both the boat and the log, Marlow suddenly perceives sticks flying around him in the wheelhouse. As a reader, I am as ignorant as Marlow about what kind of sticks it is. And why are they flying around his head?

It is only when he has steered the boat past the log and the danger is over that he understands what is happening: “Arrows, by God! We are under fire!”. Perhaps I, as a reader, have already figured this out, or I will be as surprised as Marlow himself by the attack. This is a very effective storytelling trick. It draws me as a reader into the story, as the scene is for a moment as enigmatic to me as it is to the narrator. For a short time, we both find ourselves on the river in the same situation.

Sven Lindqvist writes in his essay “The Riddle of the Flying Sticks” (Ordfront 2006) about J. Conrad and delayed decoding. He wonders if Conrad really was the first and tries to find its origin. The books about Sherlock Holmes, the first story of which was written in 1887, are basically based on the same technique. We get glimpses of Sherlock’s mind but we don’t understand, because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is no help to us. As a reader, I find myself in the same position as Dr. Watson and we are doing everything we can to keep up. Only when the case is solved will we get all the answers.

But Lindqvist finds yet another writer who was before Joseph Conrad: HG Wells. In his early science fiction novel “The Time Machine” from 1895, he uses the same technique of deferred interpretation to build the mood. The main character travels far ahead in time and lands in a seemingly very beautiful and harmonious world. As a reader, I get to take part in his observations and thoughts and slowly I understand, together with the time traveller, how this dark future world is made up. HG Wells and Joseph Conrad were friends and read each other’s books.

On the other hand, it is not so important who was first. Maybe it was someone completely different, someone Sven Lindqvist never read. Or one that was never even published? We cannot know. But the technology is today well used, not least in the world of film and television series. We take it for granted today but, as I said, everything has an origin, sometimes a complex origin. And nothing occurs in a vacuum.

Mattias is an author and illustrator

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