Less is More


Sorry I haven’t been around lately reading and commenting on your blogs, but I had to make a trip down south to check on my Dad, then I went into hiding after my LSU Tigers embarrassed themselves against Alabama.  I’m back now, and though I briefly considered leaving you with just a smiley face today to illustrate a point, I do have something to discuss. Actually, it’s two convergent points.

The first revolves around the phrase I used for my title.  It was first seen in a poem called “The Faultless Painter” by Andrea Del Sarto in 1855, but it has also been associated with the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for his works that became influential in twentieth century architectural style, stated with extreme clarity and simplicity.  The phrase became synonymous with the term Minimalism, which describes movements in various forms of art and design, especially visual art and music, where the work is set out to expose the essence, essentials or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts. (Thank you Wikipedia). 

From a writing perspective, less is more has been used to address a multitude of issues.  There’s showing (dramatizing) rather than telling (summarizing), or concerns about trusting your reader, and my personal favorite…leave out the parts that people will skip.  I am a fan of the philosophy/practice, but it is the basis for some of my own unease as well.  There is a tipping point that those of us who follow this guideline flirt with constantly…when does less become too thin?

Here’s an example I pulled from Kathryn Lance’s Writing tips:

He angrily slammed his fist on the bar. "Get out of here, you son of a bitch!" he snarled rabidly, his face contorted in rage.

The same point can be made in a way that is easier to read and less obtrusive by getting rid of some of the indicators of anger:

He slammed his fist on the bar. "Get out of here, you son of a bitch!"

But you can take the trimming too far and lose the impact along with some of the emotional content.

"Get out of here, you son of a bitch!"

I consider my novel a lean read, lacking much flowery descriptions and mind numbing detail, but it is not totally void of it.  Why?  Because I believe some of the flavor of a book sprouts from those details and leaving them out makes it too thin.

That leads me to my other point, which is kind of in the same vein…but a different arm, and it involves subtlety.  By definition, to be subtle means: thin, tenuous, or rarefied, fine or delicate in meaning or intent; difficult to perceive or understand, delicate or faint and mysterious, requiring mental acuteness, penetration, or discernment.  In other words, providing LESS information creates MORE subtlety.

As most of you already know, I write mystery/suspense novels and being subtle is where I live and breathe.  I feel that to be successful at it a writer must have a light touch and sense of nuance that allows him/her to hide relevant information in plain sight.  Much like hiding colored eggs before an Easter day hunt, you don’t want to make it too easy or you’ll ruin the fun, but digging a hole and burying them goes too far.  But does it?  What if you’re preparing the hunt for a bunch of MIT students?  Then you paint the eggs in metal flaked paint, bury them deep, and hand out a bunch of metal detectors.  It is crucial to consider your target audience!

That’s where the trust your reader’s attitude gets tricky.  To be blunt, for some readers (especially in the mystery genre) less = ???.  I know what I like to read in terms of the level of detail and subtlety, and I also like to be challenged both intellectually and emotionally, so I write that way.  But do I represent the bulk of the marketplace for this type of novel.  I’d like to think so, but the truth is I don’t know.  This is where I feel a good agent or publisher could help. 

Another way subtlety comes into play is with subtext, which Stina Lindenblatt so perfectly discusses in her Have Fun with Subtext (and Make Others Sweat) blog post.  It addresses the undertone of a scene and at times is even referred as under dialogue because it involves conflict or motives underneath the written conversation.  In my mind subtext adds depth and gravity.  But again, as with anything that is subtle in nature, its inclusion can be easily overlooked.

I’ll leave you with one final thought.  Which do you feel is more reason for concern in your writing…unrecognized subtleties that lead to a readers confusion…or blasé writing that lacks stimulation and subtext?  Which way would you lean?


30 comments

  1. I tend to lean which ever way the wind is blowing, by thinking about it too much it becomes unnatural and false. Write it as I see it and say it. Keeping it simple.

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  2. Blaise writing is sometimes easier for me to digest these days because I don't have enough time to delve into a book and get lost like I used to. I miss that. On the other hand, er...arm, if you will, I always loved Stephen King but found some of his novels to be so wordy and detailed that I'd forget the point he'd started with. "Salem's Lot" is my favorite novel of his because the emotion is there without the mind numbing detail. So, I guess it just depends on my mood at the time, how much time I have to read and what I'm in the mood for at that particular moment. I'm currently reading "East of Eden," or at least trying to. I've owned this book for TEN years and never made it through yet. I keep getting bored with it but I want to finish it so badly. At this point, it's become and "accomplishment," rather than an enjoyable read, which seems a bit riciculous.

    I hope your dad is well. :)

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  3. *an accomplishment, not and accomplishment. I can't stand typos. Yes, I'm one of those people! ;)

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  4. I'm a bare-bones writer and add layers and description during revision, which still isn't much. A recent review of CassaFire noted the many layers and parallels of the storyline, which is really great, but - I have no idea how I did it or if I can do it again!

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  5. I always tend to over-write and over-describe. I'm good at subtlety when it comes to things like theme, but I need to get better at it in other ways.

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  6. I'm with you on this one! The problem is finding that balance...too much description versus blah setting. I've been told I need to do more "world-building," in my mysteries, yet when I try, the story gets bogged down.

    Such a struggle -

    Cyndi

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  7. I thought I was on the "lean" side of YA and romance writers. Then one reviewer said she skipped over my "flowery prose" sections.

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  8. What a fabulous post, DL. I get very frustrated when I am confused as a reader so I definitely don't want to do that. I am also a reader who skips flowery descriptions and non-essential information. In my writing, I try to let it flow naturally, then fix it in revise stage if necessary.
    karen

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  9. I tend to overwrite descriptions in the first draft, so I can get down the full images in my mind. Then I go back with my weed-wacker, and try to slash the overbearing crap that's taking attention away from my flowers (oh man, the garden analogy...dang it, it hasn't slipped into my comments for awhile...sorry DL :))

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  10. I love the Easter egg analogy!
    It's for sure a fine line of too much vs not enough. Personally, I try to pay strict attention to the things I skip when I read a book, and avoid writing those myself. Sure it might paint a more vivid picture of exactly what the character is DOING, but it might also just be more to read and without really adding to the forward motion of the plot.

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  11. When I lean, I tend to provide more information. But, like you said, you NEED to consider your audience. I write for children. So, yeah. When I read mystery, I hate when things are spelled out for me. I read mystery differently. I notice details. So, for your case, I think less is definitely more.

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  12. I think I'd say "blasé writing that lacks stimulation and subtext." I think, for me anyway, subtext kind of comes out only after I've already written it. I don't think about it or concentrate on it. I think if I did, it would become too much. Does that make sense?

    I worry about telling too much and boring the reader or about not giving them enough and boring them. That makes me nervous.

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  13. Great post. I want my readers to be with me, that is, on the same page. However, I do like to leave room for the reader's mind to construct their version of a wooded vale, or a log cabin.

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  14. I love good subtext. But, I can't write it. Not in the first draft anyway.

    My first drafts are usually just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the characters and their motivations. I'm like Alex, I layer and layer and layer...and then I unlayer at least once until I'm happy with the results.

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  15. I'd say use the readers confusion to take them somewhere they did not see coming. Mystery right?! :)
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

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  16. Interesting post, DL. My natural tendency is to waffle, and I think I've managed to rein that in if I look at my earliest attempts, but I do worry that paring it down too much will leave the writing flat. I think the trick is to give enough to let the reader fill in the blanks. With the subtlety issue, it's difficult because no two readers are alike. They will pick things up differently. Some things are bound to fly over some people's heads. Hopefully, there will be something for everyone.

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  17. Like Matthew I have a tendency to overwrite, but then again I do often resort to subtleties and coded or hidden meanings. My biggest hope is that I write clearly in a manner that flows for the reader.

    Let hope posts in the A to Z Challenge follow a less is more approach.


    Lee
    Have you heard about the A to Z Video Challenge?
    Blogging from A to Z

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  18. My rough drafts are always too lean, I have to go in and flesh them out a little.

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  19. I tend to be on the less side when it comes to description. I also leave subtle clues etc, but sometimes they're too subtle. I'm working it out ... I hope! :)

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  20. I lean both ways, but then during revision try to even everything out. I like subtext and I like description, but not too much of either.

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  21. It depends on my mood for sure. Sometimes I like easy reads, other times I love the challenge of a puzzle.
    I've learned thru my own writing experience that the real art of storytelling is what is left unsaid, rather than what you've spelled out for the reader.

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  22. Love the post. It's so true how sometimes we get carried away with excess words when only a few will suffice. Don't worry about the comments. I've been writing a lot lately and when I write, social media takes a step back.

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  23. I like less when I'm reading. I don't like to feel bogged down with too many details. The story must move forward! But I do love subtle hints along the way that get me thinking. Makes me feel involved in the story somehow.

    Great post, DL!

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  24. Excellent post. I always struggle with 'how subtle is too subtle?' and 'will the reader miss this completely?'.

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  25. Excellent post, DL. I'm a yo-yo writer. Some things needs to be layered on more, and others need trimming (or blowing up, depending how bad they are). :)

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  26. I thought this was such an interesting post when I first read it and left a pithy comment, that I wanted to come back and see what others had to say. THAT was when I found out that my pithy comment was not here, and I was no longer following you.

    What can I say? Blogger HATES ME.

    Still an interesting post and many diverse comments.

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  27. Lovely points, Don! Mine's definitely the latter - way too much flowery text. I always have to chop, chop, chop when I revise, and just keep the things that are useful to the plot/more meaningful/get the point across directly. But it's all a learning process and I'd rather chop than have to fill in all the blanks, anyway!

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  28. The whole 'less is more' thing is an art I haven't necessarily mastered yet. I look back at stuff written only a few years ago, though, and think I've improved a fair bit since then. So at least I'm making progress!

    Great post!

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  29. Hey DL, hope your Dad is well..I've never written a novel, so I can't really contribute anything to the conversation about how I write, but my favourite writer of all time is Anton Chekov, and I think he was the master of subtlety...I disagree with JennJune about 'East of Eden'..I've read it a few times in my life and I love it..Steinbeck, I think, was a master..the thing about his writing is that it was so connected to place...even today, when I hear any mention of Salinas, California, my first thought is of Steinbeck.
    Hope you're having a great weekend!

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  30. Visiting from Stina's place.

    I def need practice at this art--I think of myself as a writing windbag more than not.

    Glad there are good writing bloggers out there for inspiration. Thanks.

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