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?
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”?
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