Thursday, October 24, 2013

What to leave out

I loved what Crissa Chappell said this month at YA Outside the Lines: "Students are often told to 'add more' to their stories and essays. Finally, I discovered that it's not necessary to describe everything. Give the reader one or two important sensory details. Let them imagine the rest."

I may go a little too far in the minimalist direction sometimes, but when I do it's because I am embracing that philosophy. I'm trying to give the readers just enough for them to build the stories in their minds.

There's also the question of subtlety in theme, of how much of our main point to spell out and how much to leave for the readers to figure out. In one creative writing class I took, I responded to a teacher's critique of my holding back by saying, "I didn't want to hit people over the head," to which she replied, "Hit them over the head a little." After all, a point does have to be visible. There is such a thing as leaving too many blank spaces.

But when it's done right, restraint has such power.

I saw an example this week, courtesy of a tweet by Sarah LaPolla. She linked to this essay by David Sedaris on the loss of his sister. And the essay, naturally, is powerful enough--would be powerful anyway because of the events it describes. And because of that, it feels a little weird even to talk about the essay in literary terms. But as a writer reading the work of another writer on the New Yorker website, my writer brain does tend to whisper in the background.

What I thought when I read the last line of Sedaris's essay was this: There is an unspoken line there. He does not say, "This family is not as big as it used to be; not as big as it should be." He doesn't say it, and he doesn't need to say it. The reader says it. He invites the reader to say it; he lets the reader say it. In fact, the whole essay is stronger for what it doesn't say: about sudden losses, family rifts, suicide, death, sibling bonds and sibling rivalries.

In this way, the intimacy of reader and writer can be heightened. The writer places dots in front of the reader, and the reader has to draw the lines that connect them.


  1. This is something I struggle with, having trouble finding that balance between "all" and "nothing". And sometimes I show the same story to different readers, and one will say "well, that was a bit obvious" and another will say "I have no idea what just happened, please explain" -- which makes working out if you've got the balance right a tad challenging!

    1. One thing about feedback--critiquers will almost always find questions that they have. The trick is to figure out how many of those questions do you actually need to answer in the text? How many really aren't important, how many should only be hinted at, and how many can the reader figure out him/herself? Sometimes, making the reader ask a question is the whole point.