Writing: Where Less Can Be More

by Jami Gold on July 5, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Empty glass jar with the text

For many things in life, more is better. In stores, we see packaging with “Bonus 10% extra!”, “Now even bigger!”, and “Twice the number of chocolate chips per cookie!” (That last one is unquestionably better. One of my greatest achievements is making chocolate chip cookies with just enough batter to glue the chips together. Heh.)

But in writing, the standard beliefs don’t always apply. More adverbs or adjectives don’t make our writing better. Excessive word counts often indicate fluff writing. And going into excruciating detail about every item in a room makes for boring reading.

We especially tend to make these mistakes when we first start writing. We might think readers need to picture the scene exactly like we do, so we describe every smile, sigh, and nod until they become cliché. When we hear advice about using specific details, we might think that means we shouldn’t just mention that the hero ran through the trees, we should say oak trees. Or even better, a mixture of sun-dappled, old-growth oak and maple trees. If some details are good, more is better, right?

Um, no.

Providing too much detail causes many problems, from word count to reader boredom. But there’s another issue with too much information that we might not think about. We need to provide readers room to use their imagination.

We touched on this “leaving readers room” concept when discussing how to handle intense emotional scenes. The same idea applies to many other aspects of writing as well.

Often what makes a scene feel shown instead of told isn’t about how many details we’ve stuffed in, but about how deeply we’ve pulled readers into the story. And readers will usually be pulled more into stories when their imagination is engaged.

That means not spelling out every detail for them. Instead, give readers just the highlights and let their imagination fill in the rest.

Less Information Equals More Imagination

This concept of aiming for less can be difficult. It’s easy to fall into the “more is better” trap, but let’s take a look at two different aspects of storytelling where less can actually be more.

From a Writer’s Perspective

Some writers need a story plotted out in advance before they can start writing. I’m not one of them.

On WANATribe, we’ve been having a discussion about how to make characters seem real. Some authors complete a full biography of their characters before starting the story.

In contrast, I don’t nail down all the background details of my characters before I start. Part of this has to do with how my muse works, and part of it has to do with the idea that only by leaving my characters room to breathe in my imagination do they become living entities rather than puppets to the plot. My characters’ personalities develop more organically than what can be “predicted” by their history.

For example, I recently started a new WIP (work in progress), and I knew the heroine had been ignored her whole life. I thought that would make her quiet and insecure. Okay, great, I sit down to start writing. Nothing.

Hmm, is she too quiet? Is she just not speaking to me?

No, it turns out that even though she’d been ignored her whole life, she’s on the cusp of deciding to be assertive and aggressive—making the world pay attention to her. She doesn’t want to play the part of being shy or demure. Ha! She’s more sarcastic and cynical and straightforward than that.

In the first chapter, she survives an attack that would leave most of us scared and scarred. And she reacts like: Oh yeah? Screw you, life. Screw. You.

Um, yeah, totally different than I expected, and not something I would have come up with if I’d stuck to the psychological script I initially had in mind. *smile* For me, the less information I “know” (which might be incorrect), the easier it is for the characters to talk to me.

Other writers will have different experiences, and there’s no right or wrong method. But sometimes having less information leaves us, as writers, more room for our imagination to bloom.

From a Reader’s Perspective

I read a great post by Jason Black yesterday about the purpose of a denouement. A denouement is the section of a story that comes after the climax and before “The End,” where authors have the opportunity to tie up loose ends. However, as Jason points out in his article, a denouement can ruin a story for the reader if it’s too detailed.

Jason notes (bolding is mine):

“The deeper purpose of a denouement is to reorient the characters towards the next phase of their lives. … An audience usually wants to leave a story with the feeling that the characters are facing a new, better future.

…[Y]ou create that feeling by pointing the characters toward someplace new. Not by actually taking them there.

 …[H]aving come to know [the characters] through the course of the story, we readers are finally in a position to imagine them into further life just like you imagined them into life while you were writing the story.

You had your turn. Now it’s ours, but only if you allow us to imagine what the characters might do next. If you imagine it for us, we can’t.”

He’s absolutely right. Readers often want to let their imagination free at the end of a book, and after living with these characters for however many hours, they deserve that freedom.

Beyond problematic denouements or epilogues, a similar issue can occur with teaser excerpts at the end of a book. I read the first book of a series where the heroine was happy at the ending. Aww, perfect.

However, the author included a teaser chapter for the next book in the series, and the heroine was facing problems left over from book one. Ugh. That teaser acted like an epilogue and ruined the entire first book for me. Instead of tempting me to read the next story, the teaser turned me off from the whole series forever. Not the reaction the author was going for, I’m sure. (And she was self-published, so the formatting was her choice.)

Leaving room allows imagination to fill in the spaces. Both authors and readers want to feel the sense of living, breathing stories and characters that comes from letting imagination play. As writers, we should keep that in mind before thinking that “more is better.”

Do you agree that when we use our imagination, we’re pulled more deeply into a story? Or does reading work the opposite way for you? Do you like endings with everything spelled out, or do you want some things left to the imagination? Do you write better when you’ve left room for your imagination to explore? Do you have other examples of how “less can be more”?

P.S. Don’t forget to enter my Blogiversary Contest for the chance to win “me”! Er, what?  *smile*

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24 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Tamara LeBlanc July 5, 2012 at 7:22 am

I LOVE this post. So informative…AS ALWAYS 🙂
For me, major issues in a novel need to be resolved. If the heroine’s goal is to find her long lost mother, then either she better find that chic or get very, very close to finding her. And, as a romance reader and writer, I better see a happy ending at the conclusion of the book, or I’m much less inclined to read that author’s work ever again. Now, that doesn’t mean there needs to be an epilogue that says hero and heroine married, had 2 point 5 children, bought a Golden Retriever, named it Sport and then moved into a mansion. But I do need to know that they are committed to one another in some way.
As far as details go, I need an author to give me just enough adjectives to describe a room, person, clothing, town, etc, without bogging me down with excess. So I totally agree with your view. To much is just toooo much.
I got a lot out of this. I’m still editing my finished novel, so this is extremely relevant to me. I need to get it right. I’m counting on this book…I want it to sell.
And it won’t sell if it’s overly wordy.
Thank you so much for your wisdom, Jami. You haven’t idea how much I get out of your posts.
Have a great day!
Tamara

Reply

Jami Gold July 5, 2012 at 8:57 am

Hi Tamara,

Aww, you always put a smile on my face. Thank you! 🙂

Yes, I’m with you. I need to see the resolution of the main story question, and in a romance, I want to believe the couple can make it work long term. I don’t need to see the epilogue proving they did–I just have to believe they can.

I sense another post about endings coming out of this someday. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Chihuahua Zero July 5, 2012 at 8:45 am

Personally, while less is more is good with endings and such (I read the article you linked on denouements), lately, I’ve been wishing authors work more on giving the setting more of a fullness.

As in, as much of a world as Harry Potter has. But it doesn’t have to be as detailed in a fantasy way. It’s just that I wish more authors work on making the setting more definite with each location, and say more with each little detail.

For example, one of the details I’ve been thinking about for my story is the fact that my narrator often hears sirens. This is because in the part of the city he is, there are a lot of hospitals nearby. (I checked on Google Maps. There’s a large complex.) I’m considering adding this as a fleeting detail that fill moments of silence, and subtle cosmic implications as the story arcs progress. Oh, and the fact that it’s the city, where trouble is expected.

It’s that sort of detail, the little things, that I want to see a little more of. Like the bathroom keys in Thirteen Reasons Why. Or just the ice cream palor in general. Or even those bags in one class that the students can put notes in for other students. It’s those little details that stand out and can say more about the setting, even if it’s fleeting and seemly trival.

Even though my story takes place in the real world, I want the readers to feel the setting. The tennis field. The arcade. The law firm. The art institution. The house that has a Halloween party. Some inspired by real locations; some made up. But all are bubbles that scenes are played out in. I want those bubbles to be remembered, even if they float off into the wind and cease to exist in the narrative.

Too bad I’m lazy with the school. :p (I “razed” a block of houses to make space for the sports field.) I hadn’t even thought up names for any of the teachers. Poor them. Maybe I should spite them even more by naming one and putting her on the receiving end of my narrator’s scorn.

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Jami Gold July 5, 2012 at 9:07 am

Hi Chihuahua Zero,

Interesting! And I understand what you mean.

I think some writers would consider adding a detail like that and then dismiss it as being unimportant. However, as you said, even if the sirens never come directly into play as foreshadowing of a specific event, they can still add a layer to the theme or overall tone of the story. Excellent point about the different ways details can be important! 🙂

Details like that should be carefully chosen for the subtext they convey. This isn’t about sticking in something random to fill out a scene and make it seem more “alive.” This is about picking a specific detail that’s important in an indirect way to theme, tone, characterization, or something like that. They add layers of understanding to the story, not just clutter.

Thanks for the comment and making me think! 🙂

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Juli Page Morgan July 5, 2012 at 8:50 am

Spot on, Jami! While writing the first draft of my first book, a lovely but misguided crit partner urged me to describe EVERYTHING, or as she put it, SHOW me these things. And, brother, did I ever! The narrow converted attic in which one character lived became an article for HGTV magazine with detailed descriptions of each item in the room. The littered sidewalk became crowded with gum wrappers (SILVER gum wrappers, if you please) and old papers covered in coffee stains that had blown from rubbish bins. To say nothing of the minutiae describing the characters’ physical appearance. One day I got frustrated at all this nonsense because I was so busy coming up with this stuff that I didn’t have time to write the actual story. I even bored myself when reading over it. So I tossed it out, leaving the bare minimum. Instead of describing the character’s interior decorating skills (or lack thereof!) I want the reader to know the guy well enough to imagine how his flat would look. They know it’s a converted attic; they can fill in the blanks. Is the color of the heroine’s hair important to the story? Nope. (It is important to the hero, though, since he’s rather freaky about her hair, but that’s another subject altogether. *smile*) I finally realized that if the reader knows the characters, he/she will fill in the blanks on all that other unimportant stuff and see it in their mind’s eye.

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Jami Gold July 5, 2012 at 9:26 am

Hi Juli,

LOL! at the HGTV magazine article. 🙂

Yes, it’s easy to go overboard on this issue–in both directions. If your POV character was an aspiring home decorator, then he/she’d absolutely notice details others wouldn’t. Otherwise, not likely.

I always have to laugh when I read a description that’s more specific than the character would know. Like the scene description from the POV of a random guy talking about the chintz fabric of the sofa. Really? That guy recognizes chintz fabric? I don’t think I’d recognize chintz fabric. Did I even spell it right? 🙂

I don’t mean to imply with this post that we shouldn’t include any details. Far from it. But just like with the rest of our writing, we need to be deliberate with what we put on the page. Details should be there because they’re important in some way. They inform the scene, the plot, what the characters are like, getting us deeper into POV, theme, tone, motifs, etc.

So you’re right. Your hero likely wouldn’t think in detail about his attic space (he probably doesn’t notice it anymore because he lives there). And as an author, you can always find a way to mention other details if they’re needed. If you have another scene in that same setting from a different POV, that other character could mention important details. But no matter what, as you said, the reader will fill in the blanks on the rest. 🙂 Thanks for sharing and for the great comment!

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Marcy Kennedy July 5, 2012 at 11:30 am

I’m on the far end of the plotter spectrum. I have detailed character sketches, character arcs, and an incredibly detailed plot worked out before I start writing. I think of foreshadowing, key details, and even snippets of dialogue in advance. I’m sure part of that is because I’m a type A who values efficiency, but I think part of it is also that I find that’s where my creativity flourishes best. There’s no pressure yet to meet a daily work count. There’s no wondering if everything I’m writing will be wasted because this story isn’t worth pursuing.

That level of extensive plotting is also a large part of the joy of writing for me. That’s the stage where I’m most excited. I’ve tried other approaches along the plotter-panster spectrum, and the work I’m able to produce isn’t as good. I’m less creative, and my stress level jumps. As you’ve said, one way isn’t necessarily better than another, but I think we all need to work within the system that allows us to produce our personal best work.

As for how “close-ended” I like my stories to be, I guess it depends on my mood, the genre, and whether or not it’s part of a series. I do like enough closure that I’m sure the characters will be okay and that better things await them.

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Jami Gold July 6, 2012 at 10:25 am

Hi Marcy,

“I do like enough closure that I’m sure the characters will be okay and that better things await them.”

Yes, even with series, where many ongoing questions will remain unanswered, we still want some sense of closure to the main story question–that at least in that respect, the characters will be okay. 🙂

And I understand completely about your experience with plotting. I started my first novel as a plotter–to the tune of spending 6 months writing outlines, setting details, character worksheets, etc. It was good for that book because it’s going to be part of a series, and the need for a series bible changes the game a bit.

Since then however, I’ve learned to trust my muse a lot more. Everyone’s experience will be different, but I discovered that my muse has a reason for many of the tangents. 🙂 In my pantsed novel, I had to get rid of less than 2000 words of tangents that didn’t belong. I can live with that margin of error to let my imagination free. If I start having to trash whole chapters, I’ll probably feel differently. 🙂 So as with many things, I am a work in progress. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Deb E July 5, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Wow. This post couldn’t be any more perfect timing for me. I’m heading into the denouement of my WiP, from which I intend to go onto another story. I was humming and harring over whether to include a scene I have in mind to set off the next story, and now I know which way to go! Thanks, Jami.
P.S. Also really glad that someone else doesn’t do full character sheets. I see this advice out there and think what a great idea, but then I get bored before I fill them in properly, and then I feel bad that I can’t be a good writer because I’m not doing things the “right” way … Always need to be reminded that there is no right way. So easy to forget.

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Jami Gold July 6, 2012 at 10:46 am

Hi Deb,

Yes, it’s interesting. Even after reading that book, I was still vaguely thinking it’d be a good idea for me to include a teaser chapter for my series books. But as I was writing this blog post (which was going to go in a completely different direction before I thought of this issue), I remembered how that teaser chapter had affected me emotionally.

I could see doing a teaser chapter/scene if it introduced new and different issues/plot points. For example, if the chapter/scene was from a different POV character than in the previous book and wasn’t a continuation of the same issues, it might not have that negative emotional effect.

But in the example I gave, the POV character was the same and the story questions introduced for the second book were a continuation of the issues from the first book. So other than a separating page stating something along the lines of “Read on for a sneak peek at the next book in the xyz series,” there was nothing to make it feel like a different story. That’s why it emotionally felt like an epilogue.

And you’re right that there is no “right” way with so many things in writing. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Julie Glover July 5, 2012 at 8:15 pm

I know that I am tempted to provide too many physical details of my characters. Scenes can get bogged down with the excess. I recently realized as I’m reading a middle-grade novel that I have not once been told by this author what the parents look like, but I still have a mental image of them because the author described their character traits and dialogue in a way that brought them to life. I am aiming for that.

Thanks, Jami.

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Jami Gold July 6, 2012 at 10:54 am

Hi Julie,

Great point! Yes, the expectations of details change by genre. In romance, readers do expect to see several physical description details about the hero. A paragraph of the heroine swooning over his hair, eyes, jawline, smile, etc. wouldn’t be out of line. But other genres would consider a paragraph and more than one or two details overkill, so we have to keep our genre in mind too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee July 6, 2012 at 10:02 am

Hm… While there’s an extent to which you need a certain minimum of detail (Hey, your hero got to the restaurant and started eating. When did the waitress serve him?), there’s still a degree to which details—of different types—can be optional.

I think it depends on two things:
1. What are you trying to write?
2. What readership are you trying to reach?

For example, as a writer, I’m mostly a minimalist—for some, too minimalist—when it comes to description. Usually, what I mention says more about the characters than it does about the surroundings. I’ve been contrasted with Robin McKinley, whose intensive description and worldbuilding are part of why some folks can’t stand her writing and some folks love it.

But I’m not targeting those readers who only want Robin McKinley-style description; I’m targeting ones who don’t want as much (or are okay not getting as much). So, due to my target audience (for the Aleyi stories, anyway), Robin McKinley-style description would be overmuch.

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Jami Gold July 6, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Hi Carradee,

Good point! Yes, we can’t cut detail to the point of confusion.

And it’s always a tricky line to figure out how much detail is needed. I’ve seen some authors make a big deal about the “waitress serving him” detail when the story didn’t warrant that attention. There’s a difference between a simple action beat like “He sat back as the waitress set his plate on the table” and several sentences where the unimportant waitress character is given a name for no reason and more details are given about the plate or the table or the way she set the dish down.

Again, if there’s reason for all that–illuminating the POV character, how often they come to the restaurant that he’s friends with the waitress, foreshadowing, creating tension, etc.–great. But details need a purpose.

That said, you’re absolutely right about the readership issue too. As I mentioned to Julie above, where the line of “how much detail is too much” will greatly depend on the genre. Middle Grade readers will have different expectations than adult literary fiction readers. Thriller readers will expect more detail on action sequences. Mystery readers have different expectations about foreshadowing.

That’s why no one can draw the line and say “this is too much detail” and have it apply to every circumstance. Your two questions are perfect in that regard. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Renee Schuls-Jacobson July 8, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Awesome as always. I’m all alone here in Florida for a few days trying to finish Draft 1 of my WIP. I love to read how your creative process has changed – and see how others write. I’m like Marcy. Type A++ and I do elaborate plotting. It’s the teacher in me.

But.

I’m aware that this impulse slows me down and can really potentially keep me striving for perfection when I just nerd to finish or change paths!

Jami, I’ve been thinking about RAOK, and as much as I’d love a blog makeove, the reality is I want you. Would you consider being a full-blown beta? Would you go all the way with me? IYKWIM? 😉

I’m terrified, even as I ask.

Reply

Jami Gold July 9, 2012 at 9:22 am

Hi Renee,

Good for you in concentrating on your draft. I’ve been so bad about getting distracted lately. 🙂

I totally understand your “it’s the teacher in me” reasoning. I still find my perfectionism slowing me down, so maybe pantsing is my subconscious compromise to keep it from slowing me down even more. 😉

As for for the Win-Win RAOK Giveaway, it’s your prize my friend, and I gave all the winners a choice for a reason. So after I finish reading your comment aloud to my family and we all stop laughing, I’ll email you. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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SwedenMike September 11, 2015 at 10:58 am

Well what can I say Jami, thank you for a great post !

Haven’t written a single word yet, just notes and what’s in my head.
But I have found myself searching the web for tips and now have a multi page word document with links on how to get started and best practises and so on.

Some of the things I am researching before starting to write:
Outline/plot, free writing, method
Write for yourself or the reader
Target audience
Point of view, first person etc.
Drafting, how
Showing and Telling
Character driven or plot driven novel
Building the world first

And just now I ended up here reading your fantastic post 🙂
Do you think I am overthinking the whole process Jami ?

Thanks again
Mikael

Reply

Jami Gold September 11, 2015 at 11:46 am

Hi Mikael,

LOL! As a chronic over-thinker myself, I might not be the best person to ask. 😉

What I can say is that over-thinkers can tend to procrastinate by doing more and more research, and that we need to keep in mind that this learning process will never end. (That’s a good thing…really. 🙂 ) Also, sometimes lessons won’t fully sink in until we have experience.

So if you suspect you might be procrastinating or that you’re not quite “getting it,” I’d definitely jump in and start writing. 😀 Nothing we write is written in stone, and your first draft will NOT be perfect. The point is just to get something down that you can work with in revisions. I hope that helps. Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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SwedenMike September 11, 2015 at 12:48 pm

Thank you very much for the answer Jami, now I found another
distraction of course:
I looked you up on Amazon, and when I read what the book Treasured Claim was about.. Dang it’s like she is writing a book meant for my liking. I love that kind of books, so I ordered it : )

And about the procrastinating yes, you are probably right. I am in no rush to write the novel tho but lately the ideas I have had for years have grown and want’s to come out and they are overflowing me. Have to make notes all the time lol

That was really the reason why I 3 days ago started looking up on all the things I wrote about in the other post. I thought ok, if I should start, better get some basic tips first.. Lol I found a universe of theories and battling authors who says this is the best way. And now I just found out I must get a writing voice too 😉
But it is fascinating !

Have a continued good day Jami!

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Jami Gold September 11, 2015 at 3:50 pm

Hi Mikael,

LOL! Aww, thanks! I hope you enjoy it. 🙂

Yes, that’s often how I start a new book. I think and ponder and mull ideas in my head, and then when it feels like my brain is overflowing, that’s when it’s time to start writing. 😀 Every author has a different process though, so don’t let anyone tell you that there’s only “one right way” to write a book.

Good luck! And let me know if you have any questions!

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