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?