Less is More

Or, trusting your readers

Trust is a tricky thing. Learning to trust praise is even harder. I still assume most people are ‘just being polite’ when they react positively to just about anything I do, writing-related or not. Because I’m closer to the thing they’re admiring, I see the imperfections and difficulties along with its beauty. I’ve learned to say, ‘good enough,’ for the sake of my sanity, but I started life as a perfectionist, and that mindset pops up at weird times.

It doesn’t help that we live in a social climate that only tolerates ‘approved’ imperfections and will tear unapproved imperfections to shreds. And it’s all well and good to say, ‘just ignore them,’ but that’s a skill in itself, as is taking useful criticism.

The current WIP is a very ‘feminine’ story, in the sense that the focus is on the emotions. And boy, howdy, are there a lot of them. Turns out, being murdered leaves a few psychological scars; the main character spends most of the book trying to figure out what normal looks like and reminding herself that, yes, consequences do exist; just because they’re not as severe as you know, dying, doesn’t mean they’re ignorably insignificant. Lots of ups and downs, and switching from big, intense emotions like, ‘this person is a threat; kill it,’ to more self contained ones like, ‘why is this random classmate looking at me?’

There’s a strong temptation to spell out every little emotion, exacerbated by the fact that the character is fairly cerebral and consciously thinks about her feelings and reactions, by nature and because she’s trying to conceal them from the other characters. She’s also an oddball, so not all of her reactions make sense from a normal person’s perspective. From a writerly perspective, I don’t want to confuse the readers when they come to a reaction that follows naturally from the MC’s personality and experiences, but is weird when seen in an emotional vacuum.

But too much navel-gazing will bog down even the most exciting story. So I have to pick a few things worth describing, whether they’re physical or emotional items, and trust the reader to fill in the gaps.

Not an easy task. Aside from judging which items are important enough to describe, it feels like giving up- ‘I’m never going to get this right, so I might as well half-ass it and hope the average reader is smart enough to understand what I’m talking about.’ But I’m tired of doing rewrites. Time to try something new.

8 comments

  1. When I revised [gutted and re-did] two of the Cat Among Dragons books, I cut out pages and pages of emotion. They didn’t move the story, and I could say all that with fewer words and more physical cues. (I also cut, oh, at least 15 detailed descriptions of clothing. Mil-sci-fi isn’t fashion show, unless your initials are DW and you are describing a space suit or similar wearable equipment 😉 )

    1. Or fashion is an integral part of your Mil SciFi book (e.g. A Perfect Day With Explosions might fit, but Dorothy Grant doesn’t do Dickensian descriptions)

  2. That is a delicate tightrope to walk! How much is too much, how much is needed to “create” your character. Otherwise you just get the “human in an alien suit” effect. I’ve got one I’m working on now that has a similar, though different issue, similar in that I have to figure out how much of odd things to put in do define the character, but not bog down the story. Good luck with yours, may the emotion fairies be with you. (Or would it be the logic fairies?)

  3. Ironically in an similar boat. This one already has more words than any of the other short stories I’ve written, and I’m maybe half-way through.

    And I have no idea if I’m describing too much, or too little.

  4. The way to describe an emotional state that feels easiest and most natural to me is describing the “glasses” through which a character is viewing the world. If a character is looking around and everything is gray and dreary, the reader will pick up on his state of mind without having to say, “He felt depressed.”

  5. For me, one of the most impressive versions of “less is more” is how Robert E. Howard wrote many of his Conan stories. He gives lots of hints to other things going on in distant parts of the world which gives the stories more psychological depth than is strictly scripted out. Those stories had been maligned and I had heard so much hate for them before I started reading them that I was very pleasantly surprised.

    1. The Conan stories had two strikes against them: first, the inferior “Conan” stories that were written after Howard’s death; second, the innumerable pale imitations that came out when the character proved popular.

      For a more recent example, if you read the critiques of a lot of Tolkienesque fantasy and then read LOTR, you realize that Tolkien doesn’t suffer from the vast majority of the problems that his would-be successors did, but said imitators ended up jaundicing people’s opinion of the genre due to their prevalence.

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