14 February 2012

When Less is More

Less is more. I’ve heard some people twist this maxim to ‘more is more’. Granted, that works in some situations, and the whole ‘less is more’ idea obviously has its limits: some food is better than no food! And some words on a page definitely give the reader the idea of the story better than no words. You can definitely have too little.

But you can also have too much. I’m referring, here, to the idea of overwriting – something which I was guilty of as an inexperienced writer for far too many years, partially because no one could tell me what they actually meant when they said I had overwritten something (not even my university creative writing lecturer!). It took a few years of practice, lots of critiquing, and the revisiting of some of my old university notes to figure out what they really meant.

Here’s the thing: when I sit down to write, I often have a pretty specific idea in my head of what everything looks like – where things are in relation to each other, colours, general interaction of characters and setting, and so forth. Obviously, the entire point of writing is to try to convey that mental image to the people who will read my story, and that’s what learning to write is about – learning how best to perform telepathy and transfer the image from my head to yours. Writing really is magical :)

Like all good magic, though, there’s a catch: your head isn’t a blank slate waiting for me to throw stuff at. Readers come to everything they read with their own perceptions, backgrounds, and associations – both for concepts and individual words. I do this activity in my creative writing class at school where I read out the description of a room and ask all the students to draw it. Of course, every drawing I get is different; some drew it from different perspectives, some interpreted my words in different ways – and of course, they all fill in the gaps differently.

Because here’s the other thing: no matter how detailed I am in my description, I will always leave gaps. Something about the quality of the light, or the exact proportions of the objects, or the precise shade or tone, or the temperature, or smell, or the feel of the carpet on my feet – something will always slip through my description, and the students will always have to fill in some gaps.

The students, of course, are like readers. Reader Response Theory posits that readers derive their own meaning from texts using multiple layers as clues – the phonetic layer, where we figure out the meaning of each sound, the orthographic layer, where we figure out what sounds the squiggles on the page represent, the semantic layer where we figure out what words as a whole mean, and so on and so forth. There is always going to be some fundamental similarity of meaning that all readers will have in common – Hamlet is after all not a muffin, as my university lecturer would say – but there will also be differences (sometimes slight, sometimes significant) in the way that readers perceive a story that will mean that they have different interpretations of it.

This is a good thing! I don’t know about you, but I find the most boring stories are the ones where everything is served up to me, where I don’t have to exercise my imagination or engage on any meaningful level in order to get through it. Gaps are good – gaps engage the reader and give them some work to do. Of course, as I said at the beginning, some food is better than none, and you don’t want to lapse into obscurity so that the reader has no clue what you’re talking about – that will generally make me throw down a book just as quickly as if the writer had swamped me with every single detail. It’s all about the balance: not overwriting (too few gaps) and not underwriting (too many gaps).

For me, writing is most of all about being conscious of the words you use. Maybe not in draft-mode, but at least at the final-edit stage, I have to go through and check my word usage, and make sure that every word is the best one for that moment, that it all means what I intend it to. But being a conscious writer means more than that – it also means being conscious of the gaps you leave in your work. There will always be gaps – and there should be – but they should be gaps that you have chosen.

How do you choose where to leave the gaps? Significance. Does it really matter that your protagonist is wearing a red shirt? Sometimes, yes. If, for example, he’s about to be sacrificially shot so the rest of the team can get away, sure, the fact that he has a red shirt might be symbolic. Ditto if you’re wanting to subtly foreshadow his part in an upcoming murder, or that he will die soon, or whatever. Or even if it’s just because he’s going to spill some tomato sauce on himself and it will be pretty critical to the plot that it doesn’t show up. If it’s just red because, then maybe not so much.

The key point is critical to the plot. Significant detail. Does it really matter if the reader misses this particular detail? If not, leave it out. The words that remain will be that much stronger, that much tighter, and the core of your meaning that much clearer if you do.


Anonymous said...

I always struggle to achieve this, when I write, and I don't know if I succeed but it's certainly interesting (and hard) to try to get that balance. :D

You explain it amazingly, though. I'd like to be a student in your class! ^_~

Mirja said...

I WISH this was the case with essays at uni! Use a term that you know the lecturer/tutor knows because it's basic strategic studies language, but it's an IR course so you get marked down for not explaining the word even though it's exactly the word that you need. In strategic studies, get marked down for explaining the word because it's basic language. Herpledurf.

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