One Major Reason Less is More in Creative Writing

How do YOUR descriptions in fiction give readers signs and signals?

How do YOUR descriptions in fiction give readers signs and signals?

People often say, “Less is More,” and the cliché has become just that–a cliché, overused, known by everyone–because it has some real wisdom behind it.

It’s possible not to be emphatic enough, of course. To fail through weakness. Through not giving enough supporting information, or displaying enough conviction to convince someone else. That goes without saying, and it’s true for all kinds of different situations.

But it’s also possible to hammer something home too hard. To come across too strong, as a bully. To throw so much support behind, say, a product or a movie, that people walk away thinking it can’t possibly be as good as you described it.

That’s not really what I’m discussing here. As promised in my last post, this post is about DESCRIPTION in our creative writing. That’s a pretty limited field to discuss “less being more,” and often the cliché holds true here.

There are a lot of obvious reasons it holds true, but one is more subtle than others.

When we describe something too completely, or we give readers too many details about a situation, boring them is a danger. That’s the obvious reason “too much” is a bad idea. But just as dangerous is another risk:  we give the reader so much information to process, he or she can’t pick out which details are important.

What should the reader remember? What will be important later? Which details might pop back up? Often, as writers, we LOVE to leave subtle clues for readers: hints involving “props” or “clues…” Maybe a cigarette stub left somewhere, and we don’t know who left it for sure, but only one major character smokes, so we expect readers to assume it was the smoker.

Not some unnamed smoker, but the character we’ve seen smoking two or three times. I mean, which scenario in fiction makes more sense? Fiction isn’t real life. We expect fiction to make sense. We understand when we read that a novel is a work of art, and it is an unspoken contract between us and the author that the details we are given, we are given for a reason.

That’s how fiction works. There are unlimited numbers of details we can give describing any one scene. TONS of things. No one wants to, or can, read all that. We expect an author to give us the details that matter.

It might matter to the plot, or to character development, that a character is wearing a coat. But maybe not. Maybe that detail is just mentioned in passing with a scarf to place a scene in winter. Because it’s important that it’s winter. If I’m not not given more details, I’m not going to pay attention to the coat.

But if I’m told it’s a red coat with black buttons, collared, knee-length, as a reader, I expect I’m going to see that coat again. Or, I at least take a moment to consider what it says about the character: what that clothing choice given in so much detail reveals about the person who would make it. I assume I’m given that detail, if not for greater plot purposes, then at least as character development.

Basically, I’m going to be paying attention to that coat. And if the coat isn’t important after all, that’s not a HUGE deal, though of course it’s better writing to leave out unneeded details (as a general rule).

When things get murky is when paying attention to the coat makes me forget which one of three minor characters the coat person is speaking to. Or it makes me forget a line saying that one of two conversation partners arrived later than the other, and the fact becomes important later. And then I get confused. I get confused in the middle of the novel, because I can’t remember what was really the important detail because I was distracted by the red herring of the …. well, red coat.

Remember, readers can only process so much. They are always trying to pick out what is important and what isn’t. And when we describe too heavily, we make it impossible to determine what’s important. We make it likely that readers will overlook what matters and/or project importance to other things.

That’s the main point of this post: don’t throw your readers red, collared, black-buttoned coats without a reason.

So, what do you think of description? How do you as a reader try to determine what matters and what doesn’t? Does repetition play a role there? (That’s one way a writer can project importance to a detail: repeating it. Making it reappear. That’s a signal saying, “Remember this.”)

When you think about this issue as a writer? Do you ignore it during first drafts and consider it in edits? That’s what I try to do. It’s always fun to compare writing styles!