Six impossible things

Leaving stuff out

The other day, I was looking over two different multi-book series, each of which is easily pushing a million words. Both are quite popular in their respective genres, but they are very different in their approach. Yet it could be argued that both writers make similar mistakes.

In the first series, the author (for my money) got a bit carried away by having all that space to play in, and so the reader gets to watch nearly everything the hero and heroine do, from the hero’s detailed morning routine (turn off alarm, shower, shave, brush teeth, make coffee) to the heroine endlessly revisiting her difficult relationship with her sister. The scenes involving action and mystery don’t totally take a back seat, but the pacing is leisurely. The author doesn’t just drop hints about various characters’ personalities or opinions; he/she provides five or six different scenes that beat the reader over the head with the fact that this character has a mysterious past that makes him untrusting and brooding, that character is all sunshiny optimism, and this other character is a wimp and a bit of a coward.

All of those bits of characterization are important to the story, mind. But by the time I’d watched Character C agree to three different bad ideas in three different scenes because he was too scared to speak up, I’d more than gotten the message. And I wasn’t really interested in the hero’s musing about the advantages of using a safety razor versus an electric one, even if they did provide some insight into his tendency to over-analyze and over-organize absolutely everything. I’d already figured that out from the super-tidy pencil drawer in his desk.

In the second series, the writer also got a bit carried away be having all that space, but used it somewhat differently. Instead of limiting his/her viewpoints to the two main characters and using the extra space to show the minutia of their daily lives, the author started handing out viewpoint scenes to pretty much every character he/she happened to get interested in, as well as to every minor character who happened to be present at an important event. Unsurprisingly, at least three-quarters of the characters developed their own storylines and/or subplots as soon as they became viewpoints, which made it harder and harder for me to keep track of what was going on, as well as slowing the pace to a crawl, simply because every “main plotline” scene was followed by at least a chapter’s worth of subplot scenes (sometimes more) before the next “main plotline” scene could happen and allow things to make progress.

Last week, I also picked up one of my old SF paperbacks from the 1960s, when 60,000 words was long for a science fiction book. I hadn’t read it in years, and while certain aspects of it were clearly dated (engineers in the twenty-second century still using slide rules?), I was pleasantly surprised to realize just how much characterization and how many subplots were crammed into that short wordcount.

It made me think of those Japanese ink drawings, the kind that make a picture of a cat or a horse out of two or three curved lines drawn in exactly the right places to enclose empty white space in the essence of cat or horse. The author made every word count, frequently several times for several different purposes at once. There is no wasted space…but there are also no extra words. Most of the subplots and most of the characterization takes place in the things that are not said in words on the page. They’re in the things that are suggested, implied, and left to the reader’s imagination.

In our media-saturated world, we’re used to getting more information than we need – often a lot more than we’re actually interested in. It becomes a habit, and then we start thinking that all that information has to be there, or the reader won’t understand. Because TV and movies show exactly what every character looks like, exactly how they dress, and every detail of the character’s home décor, writers get caught up in trying to paint the same kind of picture in words. In other cases, the writer has such a clear mental image of what is going on, and that image is so important to them, that they get caught up in trying to force the reader to recreate that exact same image in their own minds. This will never work (the written word is a spectacularly inaccurate form of telepathy) but that never stops people from trying.

The most effective writing is often counter-intuitive. In this case, it is nearly always more effective to coopt the reader’s imagination – poke it a few times, give it a couple of essential details and a lot of empty space, and let it fill in the mental image that has meaning and emotional impact for that particular reader.

It takes a lot of practice and work and concentration to come up with the fewest possible lines with which to enclose empty white space with essence of story, but it is so very worthwhile.

  1. I don’t know. That crammed laconic style has its own drawbacks, which is why authors and readers moved away from it in the first place. A desire for something other than compressed essence of story isn’t just a matter of laziness or bad habits.

    I’m reminded of the advice “learn to write by doing short stories” – and of why this is flawed advice.

    • I suspect that the biggest reason that novels moved away from laconic is the word processor.


      • Except that novels moved away from laconic in the 1970s and 1980s, before the big move to using word processors. I suspect that the biggest reason novels became longer was that writing for magazines and magazine serialization stopped being so important.

      • Publishers started pressuring writers to write longer books in the 1970’s and 1980’s in order to justify raising their prices.

        • Also, the binding machinery and glue improved so that it became possible to produce a paperback book that was more than 3/4 of an inch thick without the pages falling out before you were out of the store.

          • Interesting! Thank you for telling me that. It’s exactly the sort of detail that I like to know about, and I didn’t.

  2. Writers can lose control of their creations if they’re not careful.

    While it seems I have a million characters, it isn’t actually true – and only three get points of view. I started with six – dumped that on the first revision because I found I didn’t care very much what those other three thought – and their contribution to the story could come in via bits of dialogue just fine.

    Every once in a while you get a whiff of backstory that fleshes a secondary character out – I hope only when relevant to the main plot. I’ll do passes at the end making every single one of those bits proves its worth in leading the reader straight to the end – or out they go.

    I know what you mean – when the writer belabors things the character does, unless there’s a very specific reasons for each one, and it is minimalist, I’ll have the reaction you did: TMI already.

    I try hard (we’ll see if I succeed) not to put things in which will bore a reader. The key: often the thought bores ME. I use physical setting details, give them a tiny bit extra, and make them do double duty to move the plot or introduce a character. It’s still massive. But when I question details, if they have to be there, they have to.

    I don’t think I ever want to write a series the ways those two authors went. How did it work out in the end for them? Are they big sellers even if you don’t care for their style? Or is the lack of an editor keeping them in the minor leagues, in your opinion?


  3. I would much rather read a book that leaves stuff out than one that includes everything it can. Sometimes word count guidelines can really save a novel.

  4. Robert Parker was good at capturing the essence of a scene and character and not using too many words, and his plot and action moved right along too.

  5. As a reader, I cannot express how much I hate the “describing the movie playing in the author’s head” approach to storytelling. But it seems, by and large, to be how everyone writes these days. I’ve been taking refuge in older fiction for some time now. It’s so refreshing.

  6. That’s why I gave up the Outlander series after book 6. Gabaldon gets so caught up in her research, the story arc gets buried. It feels like she’s forgotten she’s telling a story.

  7. Roger zelazny (of immortal fame) once recounted his early experiences writing, where he laid out every single detail ….he was pulled up by his editor for spoon feeding his readers and being boring. He certainly corrected the tendency, because his prose is taut, intuitive and mesmerising

  8. I won’t be offended if you don’t post this – but writer 2is Robert Jordan, huh?

    • Alternatively it could be RR Martin…

      • I was listening to a couple of teens discuss GRRM last night. One mentioned that there is a 10 page family tree in the back of the book that she has to reference to keep track of everyone. It made me wonder if he doesn’t kill off characters simply because he can’t keep track of them, either. 😉

  9. As a writer who’s just getting started, I’ve been struggling with this issue a bit (how much detail/background info do I include in a story, or in any given part of a story?), so this post was very welcome! Although I know that including the right things in a story is challenging, it is freeing to realize that I really don’t have to include every little thing, and that sometimes (maybe even often), less really is more.

  10. I agree! My main complaint with so many books is that they are far longer than they need to be. Some stories are just big in nature and need a lot of space, others can be told in far fewer words than writers end up using.

  11. I didn’t discover Tamora Pierce until I was an adult. I preread some of her books to see if they were too mature to recommend to my (then) pre-teen children and got hooked. Anyway, I was intrigued by her pre- and post- Harry Potter word counts. I certainly got the feeling that Pierce was trimming a LOT of details in her earlier novels, while her later ones feel richer & fuller. I would say she’s a good example of an author using her extra words wisely.

    As much as I love Robin McKinley, I didn’t really need to read a whole page on the advantages of a mechanical cherry pitter in Sunshine.

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