Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sometimes Less is More

In my writing workshop, I read a lot of horrible stuff. I don't mean poorly written -- the group is filled with talented writers -- I'm talking about scenes where bad stuff happens.

The tendency is to put these moments "in scene," using vivid descriptions and dialogue so the reader can see and hear exactly what's happening. There is a place for this, of course. But I think that some of the most powerful moments are defined by what is not said, by what is not shown to the reader. Because, if left to his own imagination, the reader will conjure a version of the scene that is most horrific, most personal, to him. Something an author could never do, no matter how good she is.

For example, lately I've read pages where the character gets a call telling her a family member has died. And we hear these calls: "So-and-so is dead. He's dead... how? No, it can't be!" Now, don't get me wrong: these scenes were well-written and gut-wrenching. I'm just wondering if they would've been even more powerful if the reader was left to imagine how terrible the event would be. It brings to mind a paragraph from Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, one of the most powerful I've ever read:

"For, when the police sergeant early next May wakened me before daybreak, I rose and asked no questions. Together we drove across the Continental Divide and down the length of the Big Blackfoot River over forest floors yellow and sometimes white with glacier lilies to tell my father and mother that my brother had been beaten to death by the butt of a revolver and his body dumped in an alley."

Of course, this is only so powerful because up to this point, the author has already shown us what would be lost if Paul were to die. And this Maclean does masterfully.

LB readers, can you think of any scenes where the author accomplishes more with less? Or where the author gives away too much?


  1. I love this post because I was just thinking about details the other day. My favorite author, Emily Giffin, always leaves out physical descriptions of her main characters. THe reader has a general idea (for example, the guy is tall with an italian background) but she leaves the other details up to the reader. I like that and enjoy the picture my own mind conjures.

  2. Yes - I've read somewhere that the more physical details an author provides about a character, the less the reader identifies with him or her.