When Less is More

It’s something we all hear from time to time – less is more.

But when it comes to writing, what does that mean, exactly?

Yesterday, as I was working on my young adult novel, I was reminded yet again of this adage, and how it affects my writing – generally for the better.

Most writing books will have something to say on this topic. Stephen King will tell you that adverbs are the work of the devil. A lot of writers will tell you that dialogue tags are the first thing that need to go in a manuscript (which has some merit; after all, if your dialogue and action don’t tell who’s talking, then you’ve got some work to do). Description? Of course you need it, but do you need ten pages of description? Probably not. That’s why it’s so important to work details like that into the narrative.

(I read the first page of a manuscript once where it was nothing – nothing! – but a description of this spaceship. I was so bored and confused by the end of the first paragraph that I told him to start with a character and the character’s problem, and work these details in later.)

So yesterday. I was working on my manuscript and I had several places where there were ‘problem sentences’ – sentences that didn’t quite make sense in the context to the scene, that needed rewritten.

Or did they?

Take for instance this one (problem sentence is in bold):

Bart hauled me to my feet and tucked his gun away. “Scrappy little thing, aren’t you?”

“I don’t take nothing off nobody,” I said.

He laughed. “I can see that.”

“Bart.” Sally’s voice came down the hall. “Bring the kid in here.”

And then he dragged me down the hall and into that room. 

Next to that line, I scribbled Why? She needs to ask why Bart has Nicky in the basement. And then I realized that just down the page a bit, she does ask. And so – voila! Less is more.

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Cut the problem line, and it reads just fine.

I can’t tell you how many times that trick has saved a scene for me. Here’s another example:

He stared at me, and for the first time since I’d known him, I saw fear, real fear, in his eyes. “You met Collins? He was there?”

“He liked Abby real well.” I bit the inside of my cheek, trying real hard to hang on to my temper. “Told me it’s a sin to take another man’s runner.”

“He’d know.” Simon picked up another apple, but he didn’t take a bite. “He say anything else?”

This is an example of a time when I had one thing planned for this scene, but by the time the entire thing was written and done, this line didn’t make sense anymore. Through several drafts, I kept coming back to it, wondering if I should – or could – make it work, if there was a way to revise it. And then, finally, I just cut it. And guess what? It works fine.

Of course, it’s not just about a line here or there (though if you’re trying to cut your word count, that does help). It’s also about entire scenes. For example, in this novel, my MC, Nicky, is a rumrunner in 1924. I had a pivotal scene drafted in which he needs to leave at a certain time to make a delivery to a hotel, but Bart delays him – and the next day, they find out that revenuers were patrolling that road at the time Nicky would have been there. But the hotel they were delivering to didn’t exist in 1924. So that kept bothering me. I’m a stickler for historical accuracy. In fact, at one point in the manuscript I wrote The Gueda Springs Hotel is a problem for them AND me! 🙂

But. I had this other thing in the back of my mind – a local Klan parade that I just hadn’t worked into the narrative yet, though I knew it was important. Finally, yesterday, the two clicked (I literally saw the light going on in my head!) and both problems got solved. Rather that mess with the hotel, I changed the scene so that Bart keeps him from getting caught up in the Klan parade (because in the 1920s, the Klan hated bootleggers more than they hated just about anyone). That made me very happy.

Sometimes, sadly, you do have to ‘murder your darlings.’ Entire scenes get cut. Characters get the axe. Ideas don’t work. But sometimes, it works out for the best. And sometimes, rather than fuss with one line that doesn’t make a lot of sense . . . you can just cut it.

Less really can be more. 🙂

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