Did 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.