Archive for October, 2010

The “Less is More” Exercise

Friday, October 15th, 2010

FictionEditors and other writing professionals constantly advocate “showing,” not “telling.” The idea is that readers ought to draw their own conclusions about the characters and action in a story, without the author having to provide explanatory narrative. As trite as “Show. Don’t Tell.” might sound among writing connoisseurs, the advice is still valid. Writers who can effectively convey personality, tone and meaning without relying on overt narrative usually produce the most satisfying and believable fiction.

My suggestion is that writers experiment by paring down their prose from the very start–deliberately saying less, rather than more, in their exposition. There always exists a moment when a writer might want to explain something to the reader–to clarify a character’s emotion or emphasize the tone of a particular scene. I recommend not taking that explanatory route, holding back on the explanation and allowing the reader’s own thoughts to fill the resulting textual “silence.” Hold off on the impulse to tell, and I believe you will show readers more.

The following passage indicates the “telling” moments (underlined) a writer might be tempted to add. Read the passage with and without these underlined parts, and see which version you think works more effectively.

more telling:

“Would you like some more tea?” Susannah hovered over Peter with the dripping teapot, even though she knew he wouldn’t want more tea. He hadn’t touched the tea she had already served him. Peter probably thought he was too good to drink tea out of her chipped and mismatched cups. “Bourgeois cups,” she thought he had called them, even though she hadn’t really been able to hear from the kitchen.

“No,” Peter said, moving his hand as though to cover his teacup.

Susannah was so angry that she wanted to dump the tea on his head. Who was Peter to suggest that her tea was second-rate? That her life was second-rate?

“How about a scone?” Susannah rattled the scones on the little blue plate, knowing the sound would probably annoy Peter. It did.

“I don’t eat scones,” he said.

“Well, isn’t this nice? The tea is sweet and hot.” Mr. Partridge sounded flustered, as though he wished Susannah and Peter would just get along. But she couldn’t get along with anyone as arrogant and egotistical as Peter. Susannah wanted to scream.

“More tea, Mr. Partridge?” she said instead.

Peter sighed outrageously and looked out the window. His tea was getting cold.

less telling:

“Would you like some more tea?” Susannah hovered over Peter with the dripping teapot, even though he hadn’t touched the tea she had already served him in the chipped cup. “Bourgeois cups,” she thought he had said, even though she hadn’t really been able to hear from the kitchen.

“No,” Peter said, moving his hand as though to cover his teacup.

“How about a scone?” Susannah rattled the scones on the little blue plate.

“I don’t eat scones,” he said.

“Well, isn’t this nice? The tea is sweet and hot.” Mr. Partridge sounded flustered.

“More tea, Mr. Partridge?” Susannah said.

Peter sighed outrageously and looked out the window. His tea was getting cold.

Which version do you think works better? Feel free to let me know. I would love to hear from you.