Less is more

01-8ohYkDid you ever hear the phrase less is more? I remember the first time I heard it. I was ten or eleven, and I came downstairs with probably fifteen different barettes in my hair. Mom took a look at my feral head and remarked, “Less is more, you know.” I had no idea what she meant. Then my older sister came in from outside and said, “Ever hear that less is more?” I figured it had to be pretty important, so I puzzled over it until I understood what they meant. (I took out two of the barettes and felt like a better person, all-around.)

Less is more. It’s a truth universally acknowledged, with very few exceptions (books, mp3 downloads, and caramel pieces being a few of them) – but there’s one area where it’s very easy to forget said truth. And that area is – writing! I used to have no happy medium – either my writing was too sparse, or it overflowed with useless details that nobody cared about. No one wants to know the name of each blade of grass, trust me. (It’s my main problem with the writing of both J. R. R. Tolkien and Stephen Lawhead. I love them both dearly, but  they could have used some less-is-more.)

I would swing back and forth between these two extremes, and I had no idea how to regulate it – until I read Stephen King’s On Writing. Out of that entire novel, the thing that I remember the clearest is this: He was talking about a short story he had written about a serial killer. A woman called him one day and told him she couldn’t condone the story, as there was too much graphic violence. She claimed there was ‘too much blood and gore.’ He pointed out, ‘Ma’am; I never even mention blood in that story.’ And it was true – the most graphic, violent thing he said was ‘he clubbed them to death like two baby seals.’

He never mentioned blood – but what does that phrase bring to mind? Something violent, probably bloody, distasteful – and therefore effective. Now, while I’m definitely not a Stephen King advocate (I don’t even recommend On Writing to most people because it’s liberally sprinkled with foul language) this stuck out to me more than any other piece of writing advice I have ever received. Essentially, he was saying, ‘less is more.’

I took this to heart when writing Monster. Even now, when I look back on Monster and re-read my favorite parts, I think two things – One: Wow, this was a year ago and I could write it better now, and Two: I’m happy with how I portrayed the violence.

And it’s thanks to the woman who called into Stephen King with a bone to pick. Now, don’t think the rule only applies to violent situations – that isn’t true. As a writer, you have to be responsible with the ideas and images you put in readers’ minds. Do it gracefully, do it with tact, do it efficiently, and remember that less really is more.

NOTE: I’m not downing detailed, intricate writing style. Some of my favorite authors write in this style. I’m just giving you a tip I found extremely helpful when portraying ideas or particularly nasty scenes. ‘Less is more’ is not an infallible rule, but as a rule of thumb, I’ve found it to be wonderfully useful.


20 thoughts on “Less is more

  1. As always: brilliant!! I’ve noticed with several older books (anything by Tolkien, Dracula, etc.), they’re not concise. So they have all the information, they just don’t convey it in an easy manner.

    So how did you eventually find that middle ground? How do you know what’s important enough to keep and what’s not? I feel like it should be obvious, but as an amateur, I don’t. xD

    • Well, some of that is technical, and the other half is about what you as the author feel is necessary.
      I don’t remember who said it, but a playwrite once stated, “If you have a gun on the wall in the first act, it has to be used before the play is over.” Don’t keep anything unecessary.

      • That’s something I’ll have to keep in mind. Thank you! 🙂 Will you generally feel if it’s too verbally heavy or will other people pick up on it and let you know…?

        • It might be good to have a beta-reader on hand; a parent, a sibling, a friend with a keen eye, that kind of thing. I know that when I write, I’ll think, “Hey, that’s brilliant!” and then readers will go, “Eh, it was kinda boggy.” Crushing though it may be, a second pair of eyes is really important. 🙂

      • ‘Tis a paraphrase of a paraphrase of a quote by Chekhov. The dramatic principle is named after him (“Chekhov’s gun”) and is probably my favorite writing principle to live by.

        Loved the article, Mirriam, as always. 😀

  2. Baby seals?!! O.O Evocative! on the other hand I love mah baby seals. (I find it harder and harder to watch those nature documentaries.

  3. This is probably the biggest struggle I have with my writing. I tend to put far, far too much detail. It takes me a whole paragraph to describe something a good writer could explain in a single sentence. This is something I’ve been trying so hard to work on, it’s still hard for me though.

    Thanks for sharing! You should share more writing tips posts, they’re always helpful! ^_^

  4. Thanks for this post! I have actually been thinking about this in my own writing and this post helped me to put want I want into clear words.
    Also I agree with Lauriloth, your writing tips are the best! And I love it when you post them. 🙂

  5. I had a slight fetish with hair clips when I was younger too. Okay…I also wear about 6 in my hair when I go running in the morning. More is less, too, right? XD

    This is awesome advice! I’ve never really thought about the less-is-more thing, other than I am TOTALLY for less. I would rather read a bare-bones story than an overflowing-detailed one any day. I can’t survive Tolkien (though I really wish I could) and I absolutely love Narnia where all he described was the food. (Hehe…okay, not totally true. But still!) LOVE this post.

  6. You’re so right, Mirriam. I just got back some comments on my novel Finding My Balance and found one of my main issues was the use of too many words. The plot is very minimalistic, and a friend pointed out to me that the style ought to match. She’s right – you’re right – and now I’ve got work to do! 🙂

  7. Pingback: Write Concise | The Villain Authoress

  8. WOW, I needed this! There are probably several areas of my writing to which I could apply this… For one thing, I have been told that my story is too violent. I disagree (and there ARE important reasons for the violence I’ve put in it), but perhaps I should re-evaluate my descriptions. Maybe trim them down a little. Hmm. You’ve given me something to think about.

  9. Interesting. Glad you found a more happy balance and that you are seeing progression, growth. you absolutely pulled off the “less is more” aspect with Monster. It prompted the mind, but left the imagination to do it’s job. 😀

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