July 5, 2012

Writing: Where Less Can Be More

Empty glass jar with the text "Less Isn't Bad...It Leaves Room for Imagination"

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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Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

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!

Chihuahua Zero

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…  — Read More »

Juli Page Morgan

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.

Marcy Kennedy

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.

Deb E

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.

Julie Glover

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.


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.

Renee Schuls-Jacobson

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.


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.


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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


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!


[…] Obviously, as in the example above, overwriting slows down our pacing, but it can create other issues as well, such as repeating ideas and adding redundant information, preventing subtext, and not leaving room for our readers’ imaginations. […]


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