Less is more

by Aaron Dennis

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Posted by ADennis1111
Less is more? How can less be more? Last I checked, four oranges are less than five, and that means….

Okay, hold on; let’s try it in a writing example:

He went to the store.

He went to the grocery store and bought milk, eggs, beer, and bread.

Nope; more is still more…or is it?

Let’s check out one more example:

Lucy told him that she didn’t like it when he fed the dog at seven because that was too early, and then the dog would be hungry again before four, which was when she got home. John looked at her, and his face contorted when he kind of squinted his eyes. His lips paled in color, and they grew tight; there was a mean flicker in his hard eyes and his jaw clenched.

That’s quite a bit. That must be great, right? It’s definitely more, but let’s see another example:

“Don’t feed Bella so early,” Lucy chastised. “She’ll get hungry before I get home at four.”

John returned her look, bearing an expression of indignation.

Uh-oh! That’s way less…but it shows way more, doesn’t it? The whole less is more concept is intimately tied into showing versus telling, but it also engenders a great deal more than that. In the examples above, both versions are providing the same story; one is a wordy way of telling a situation, and the other is a great way of providing an experience, but sometimes, it’s what a writer doesn’t say, show, or tell that makes or breaks a story.

Admittedly, when I first started writing, this was one of my greatest drawbacks; I used to state something in prose like just before it happened; a paragraph, a page, maybe two pages later, what I had alluded to occurred. Foreshadowing is fine, but the following example explains it better:

John watched the cow as she gave birth to her little baby. A new life was dawning, but with life comes death; such is the way of the world. Things come and things go…and so do people, John thought.

Then, two paragraphs later, John was having to deal with the death of a loved one. That’s too close for foreshadowing; it’s foretelling, and needs to just be cut, so that as a whole, the story provided is less, but the experience is more. The easiest way to solve the above situation is to just cut the thought that John had. A more creative way is to have that scene as the story’s opener, that way, if John has to deal with death right away, it doesn’t affect the continuity of the rest of the story, but that’s considered restructuring, which can’t be done until the entire story has been written, read, and edited to some degree.

The restructuring process has to do with scrutinizing a series of events and then placing them in an order for optimal impact—be it an emotional impact, as in the case of romance, an intellectual impact, as in the case of spy stories with a great deal of espionage, or even pacing, as in the case of action scenes or thriller novels. The thing about restructuring is that you, or your editor, must consider the entirety of the story, and then, you, or your editor, must pretend to be a reader who has no preconceived notion of the story and its sequential events. Afterwards, you must question which scenes need to be set up for maximum effect; some events must come as an abrupt shock to a reader while other scenes may require some back story.

Let’s get back to another form of less is more:

The sun glistened off her sequins the way errant rays of gold illuminate stained glass during the brilliancy of early morning. Her radiant appeal was thwarted only by her grace and poise; the way she danced, like no one was watching; the way she laughed, like Beethoven’s sixth symphony, Pastoral. Simply watching her saunter down the stairs—a great banister of gold beheld only by the angels themselves—brought unto the heart the truest of emotions; the simplest; love, but true love, the kind of love only ever described by Greek Mythology, and never truly felt by a mere, mortal human, until today…the day I saw her, my angel, Melody.

Boy…that’s right purdy’ writin’, and there’s certainly a place for it, but if the entirety of the story is written like this then…where is the story? What has happened in the example above? A man saw a woman come down the stairs, and he fell in love with her, but what does she look like? Where are they? What are people doing? There’s nothing in the example except for pretty writing, flowery prose, and that isn’t good storytelling.

I’m gonna’ let you guys in on a little secret; creative writing courses are scams, and they are creativity killers. Why? Because they teach you to over think and over write everything. Poetic prose is really, truly, a great literary device if used in moderation and only when necessary. As in the example above, it’s a great opener for a story of star crossed lovers, but there must be some story after that pretty opener.

Picture this: you see a cabin in the woods. It is old, a bit moldy, and you can see the crevices in the aged logs. The windows are obscured by grime. The door, which looks to have once been painted a vibrant green, is now a faded brown.

Certainly, the cabin can be beautified by placing a bed of red roses below the window. Now, imagine placing rows and rows of roses all around the cabin. Watch the roses surround the entirety of the structure; see them grow, and twist, and intertwine, until all that you can see is brambles and pretty, red flowers.

It’s just that—pretty, but now the substance is gone. The worn cabin is the story, and all that pretty writing just alienates your audience; it obscures the message, the reason for even telling the story. Writers, why are you telling your story? You have to be able to answer that.

Less is certainly more if the concept is employed correctly. Now, I’ll be the first to say; there are no rules in writing, but there are numerous rules in editing, and it is imperative, paramount to good writing, to follow those rules, because no matter the story, the experience given is supposed to be for the reader, the audience, and they have been trained to glean information in a specific way, and all too often, writers and editors forget what it was like being just a reader without knowledge of crafting a book.

Less is certainly more especially when more entails repetition, but you see, often times a writer accidentally forgets that their audience isn’t comprised of a bunch of nincompoops. In other words, they relate the same information over and over again ad nauseam; yes, we get it; Jim loves his family, stop telling us. Yes, we get it, Ellie feels guilty for leaving her family behind. Yes, we get it; they fell in love from simply a look….

Writers; do try to avoid blatant repetition; what good is two pages worth of the same information written in a slightly different manner? Editors, when you see it, cut it! Cut the redundancies. Readers are bright people, and they may certainly need a reminder, a one liner, a piece of dialogue, or an internal thought to remind them of something important, but keep it concise.

What good is a one hundred thousand word book if only fifty thousand words are story, and the rest is but pretty writing? A one hundred thousand page book must be at least eighty thousand words of actual story, and that doesn’t mean telling the reader what is happening, and it certainly doesn’t entail mindless repetition.

Conversations, character actions, reactions, interactions, world building, even descriptions are all part of the story if they drive the plot onwards. That’s why only what is absolutely pertinent must remain in the story, and everything else—no matter how much you, the writer, likes it—must be cut from the narrative. There are few exceptions, and they deal with pacing, and we will cover pacing in a moment.

Thanks for reading what I’ve presented so far, and I appreciate that you have read what I wrote. On top of that, I’m grateful that many of you are looking over the information provided in this post, so I want you to know that it’s much obliged. Also, the fact that lot’s of people have let me know that they are being helped by my advice is just aces. Furthermore, it’s important for me to say thank you to all those who continue to share with others my helpful thoughts…I’m joking…did you get it?

On a more serious note, let’s look at pacing. Pacing is often misinterpreted. Pacing is basically how much information is thrown at the audience and how intensely. Let’s look at an example from an original story I wrote:

Garrett paid his tab and made his way onto the cobbled streets. Rather than asking the barkeep, or even then patrolmen for directions, he continued to the guards’ barracks. Upon reaching the wooden building, Garrett entered to find Ograk. As was her custom, she sat with her feet up on a desk, picking pulled pork from her fangs.

“Oh, the pretty boy,” she chirped and hopped off from her chair, nearly knocking over the papers covering the table.

“Uh, yes,” Garrett grinned. “I wanted to find Dolf and talk to him about what may come to pass after Larson’s arrival and our subsequent departure, but I figured I should talk to you as well…you and your guards seem the most capable I’ve ever met.”

“Yes,” she nodded. “Good you come for talk. You listen, when people like Cormick come, more people come, too, bad people. Guards here good, though. We keep people safe.” That brought a frown to Garrett’s face. When he furrowed his brow, she asked, “What wrong?”

“Two people died yesterday, and I can’t help but feel it was my fault. That’s why I’ve come back to see you…and what you just said is true; I also fear more danger is on the horizon. Dolf and his friends seemed more than willing to help. I’m going to discuss matters with him personally, but I think maybe you should round up others like him, a sort of mercenary band willing to fight for the town…keep an extra eye out for trouble…and no one can know that Larson and I are heading for Xorinth.”

“Understood,” she nodded, slowly. “When you leave?”

“As soon as Larson arrives, I hope. Though he may want to rest, I’ll try to get as far from town as possible as quickly as possible, and speaking of Dolf, I was told he’s a miner.”

“No,” she said with a touch of surprise. Garrett was also a bit shocked by her assertion. “He mine sometimes to help, but Dolf is Griffin Knight.”

“Griffin Knight?!”

“Yes, a,” she was explaining.

“I know, King Roan’s elite squadron,” Garrett interrupted. “I won’t ask what he’s doing here, but now I must speak to him…he must know something of the current proceedings in the capitol. Where can I find him?”

“Check miner barracks. He usually there if not working or drinking at Frog.”

“Got it…Ograk,” he said quietly.


“Thank you,” he said and placed a hand on her shoulder as a sign of solidarity.

“You sure you no want cart ride?” she joked.

He chuckled, winked, and left her to her devices. Since the barracks were by The Meow, the fencer made his way back. It was just after noon by then, and the bright sun reflected an intense light off the stone streets and buildings. Garrett had to squint to keep his eyes from burning. The shadows had become short and scant, thus lacking in protection from the increasing glare.

There’s a lot of dialogue there, right? A great deal of information has been tossed out, but there’s no feeling of urgency, is there? Something dark is certainly afoot, but in spite of the ominous possibilities, you get the feeling that this Garrett fellow is a thinker, someone who will plan out every contingency, so there’s no real hurry in the pacing. In part, it’s due to the punctuation, the ellipses, the three dots (…) connote a pause in speech; this is the only punctuation to connote a pause in speech, and not the comma. Yes, we’ll deal with commas much later. Back to the point, there’s no urgency because the reader is forced to read long, drawn out sentences, all of which describe something; facial expressions, tones of voice, the items of the world.

When a writer or editor want to slow the pace of a story, they often tell more of the story rather than show it; they write more, but provide less information, even if a ton of information is going out to the reader. Let’s compare this with a point from deeper within the same story:

Lambry made claims that the bandits he fought outside of Longmarch seemed rather clean and well equipped. They were organized, and unlike any other group of bandits, they were only fighting to kill, not steal, not kidnap, and that made the crusader wonder if perhaps they had been funded by an outside influence for a special purpose, but it was of little concern; he and the men hired by Parish quickly eradicated the threat. Subsequently, Lambry ventured from one temple of Akalabash to another for ten years. At each location, he received a mission while in prayer; Akalabash sent him, either alone or at times with a group, to dispatch one force or another. Not all the missions were noble ones. Lambry wrote about a mission handed down by Akalabash during which he was ordered to rally a group of men in Fellsborough and mount an attack on someone named Count Hillshire.

It sounded to Garrett as though it was an attack designed to instigate instability in the southeastern regions of Ruvonia. There was little information regarding that adventure, yet Lambry was resolved to follow his orders, but once the scuffles broke out all across those regions, he found himself leaving the warring men and women to their own devices and returned to a temple for more directions. It was only then that the first mention of the Dark One was written; Akalabash ordered Lambry to find and defeat the Dark One in some ancient barrows outside of Owensbrook. That meant that Longmarch had already been sold to the Owens nobles, which also implied that Parish had taken his leave.

Though details of the orders were scant, explicit particulars were given regarding the location of the barrows, that they were over a thousand years old, contained the dusty bones of former, barbarian clans, and that an infestation of undead had been wreaking havoc upon Owensbrook and neighboring, farming communities. Lambry spent his own funds to hire a crew of wizards and warriors, entered the barrows, navigated the labyrinth of undead and traps, and finally came face to face with a liche, which he called the Dark One. The battle came to a head with the liche dismembered and burned to a pool of grease, three members of Lambry’s crew dead, some serious injuries from which it appeared Lambry never recovered, and peace in Owensbrook.

In the above segment, Garrett is actually reading from a book, so the character is learning, but at the same time, you are also learning, however, there is a sense of urgency. One event after another bombard you even though the events are told rather than shown, and they are told, because again, they are simply being read by the protagonist. Now, let’s pit that against an action scene in the same tale:

Larson was about to enter into an argument when a chorus of wailing, elongated growls echoed across the land. The horses froze on the spot, nearly tossing their riders. Larson and Garrett exchanged a look of sheer horror as they maintained their balance.

They turned their mounts to face the southwest, from where the noise had come, only to witness immense, gray, scaled creatures. They were dragons with wings for forearms, beaked maws lined with teeth, muscular, rear legs, and thick, whipping tails. Wyverns were taking flight from some unseen roost hidden by the jagged stone.

The pacing here is rather slow. There’s a lot of information, but it is given in many words, which requires more time to read, yet doesn’t require a great deal of effort to comprehend. Continuing:

“Son of a shite,” Larson said, matter-of-factly.

“Wyverns,” Garrett shrieked. “We can’t take wyverns!”

Both men wheeled their horses about and made a full gallop towards the north. “Are we going the right way?” Garrett howled as they bowled over withered grass and dusty meadows.

“Xorinth’s north! We’re going north!”

“Damn it, ride Lola, ride!”

The warriors held onto their reins for dear life. Riding as fast as possible, they were no match for the speed of the flying lizards. A half dozen fire breathing beasts were swooping in from high above and miles to the south, but they were gaining on the men.

In the above portion of the story, the pacing has quickened. There are more and shorter sentences. The paragraphs are also broken up by very short pieces of dialogue. Let’s keep reading:

“I told you there was trouble, but noooo,” Garrett mocked. “I know a shortcut! We’ll be alright! You’re sure it’s fine!”

“Shuuut uuup!” Larson growled. “It was your yelling what drew their attention!”

“Shite, shate, shat, arse!”

Larson chuckled. He wasn’t afraid for his safety, but was definitely worried about his friend and the horses.

“There,” Larson yelled, pointing. “That farm house isn’t too far. Duke, you’re going ride, old friend!”

Larson came to a sudden halt, nabbed a broadsword and shield off Duke, dismounted, slapped the horse’s big, brown butt, and sent him riding for the farmsteads.

“What are you doing?” Garrett screamed.

“Go, you dunce!”

Garrett grumbled, stopped, dismounted, and sent Lola ahead as well. “We’re going to get creamed,” Garrett claimed while the horses sped off towards Xorinth.

“Roasted, I should think,” Larson commented with a subtle shrug of acquiescence.

“Oh-ho-Ho-HO-HOO,” Garrett grumbled in a Costanzian strain.

The pace has been slowed again. Even though the wyverns are gunning for the duo, time has been taken to show how silly they are even in the face of adversity through the use of dialogue, yet despite the silliness, the characters are concerned for the town’s safety. Let’s see just a bit more:

“We have to hold them off,” Larson demanded. The wyverns were coming in fast. Both warriors knew if the creatures followed the horses, the farms, the city, innocent people were certainly in store for an upheaval. “If we’re lucky,” Larson chortled. Garrett steadied himself for the attack, but glanced at his friend. “They’ll split up, and only one or two will go for the horses. Our best bet is to run in opposite directions and draw their attention.”

“After they roast us,” Garrett said, the strain in his voice still rising as the first wyvern swooped in low. “Aaaargh!”

They dove in opposite directions; flaming breath barely missed singeing their trousers. When the wyvern touched down, it spun around to face the men—divots were carved into the ground by its claws—and it took two steps, beat it’s wings, which caused dust to rise, and finally, it flew straight for the duo like a scaly arrow.

“They’re still going to get the city after they eat us!” Garrett claimed.

“Just, just run!”

Turning on their heels, Larson and Garrett made a mad dash towards the beast. After rolling beneath the wyvern’s swipe, they came back to their feet. A huge shadow obscured the peeking sun for a moment, and they felt the gale of another wyvern. Running as hard and fast as possible, they nearly choked on their saliva. The bugle of wyverns circled above, and time and again, the creatures shot forth blazing breath. Dodging one way, rolling another, swiping steel at one immense, clawed foot, or shooting a fireball at wings, the fighters tried their best to survive, but it became impossible to keep an eye on their destination simultaneously, and so they stood their ground as the dried grasses beneath their feet caught flame.

One wyvern landed before Larson, squawked, and snapped at him. He brought his shield forwards to lodge into the beast’s mouth, but when the wyvern exhaled fire breath, Larson hit the dirt, relinquishing his protection. Garrett came in from the flank and sank his rapier to the hilt. With the blade in its neck, the wyvern slung its head about and knocked Garrett to the ground. He cowered as another wyvern landed beside him; its tail resting on the fencer’s flank for just a second.

Back on his feet, Larson slashed at the wounded wyvern’s throat. Though it bled and fell back with tongue protruding, a gout of flames erupted from behind the warrior; a third wyvern flew by and sent him face first into the dirt. The heat immediately stole his breath, dust entered his sinuses, the incandescence blinded him, and the flames set him ablaze. In agony, he rolled about the ground. The flames were snuffed out, but pain seized his midsection; another beast had gripped him, and the pressure of wind from speedy flight kept him immobilized.

The pace is then hurried. There is so much happening that it’s almost difficult to concentrate. The reader is bombarded by short, staccato sentences, and so there is the feeling that numerous things are happening all at once. This is meant to make you feel like, presumably, the characters feel—discombobulated. Pacing can be difficult, for some, to grasp, to correctly employ, but by reading different stories with different paces, or reading a single story with different paces throughout, a writer or editor can come to understand what makes a segment feel hurried or slowed, and when to employ a hurried or slowed segment. Certainly, action should be hurried, at least at times, but too much hurried action will ultimately confuse a reader, but it can be broken up with a short piece of dialogue or an internal thought.

Certainly, scenes of espionage, intrigue, or love, or relaxation should be slowed, but too much slowed story, and a reader gets bored waiting for something to happen. Unfortunately, there is now way to deal with these concepts until a story has been written to completion. As always, get the whole story down. Then, after the story is completed, you, or your editor, can go through the tale, searching for pacing issues.

Is one section too quick? How can it be slowed? Tell more than show. Is a certain portion too long and drawn out? How it can be quickened? Use shorter sentences more often, and make smaller paragraphs.

Remember, one paragraph has only one idea. A short paragraph comprised of short sentences provides a less complex idea in shorter time than a long paragraph comprised of numerous, complex sentences. Short stories are perfect for learning pacing because of their simplicity.

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