Don’t Tell us Everything… but Tell us Enough

The problem with writing analytical essays on novels and short stories is that they generally suck. The problem with citing the text to support your theories is that sometimes it’s what the author leaves out that helps support your theory. Some feelings arise from what is missing from the story.

For example, names. If a character isn’t named, only referred to as “the construction worker” or “the boy,” that may mean

something. Either that the character is insignificant or is representative of a large group, rather than characterized as an individual.

Just how as a writer, by never using the word “utilize,” you prove that you’re not a total tool.

If writing had real rules (which is doesn’t, really) one should be to never used words like “utilize.” For some reason, every time I see someone utilize that word, I want to utilize a wrench to bash open their pretentious skulls.

Maybe I’m getting off topic.

Leave out some of the story—don’t feel the need to explicitly tell everything that happens. Allow your words to imply something. Now, don’t go James Joyce on us, writing like a grad student lovelorn with postmodern literature, whose sentences are merely labyrinths of confusing symbols and half-disguised political commentary. So, show us a little, but don’t overdo it. We want the woman showing just enough so that we can imagine what’s underneath without being able to see it. Meaning: Don’t wear a story burka.

Because who doesn't find an eye patch sexy?

Some writers explicitly explain the themes of their stories within the stories, and this could work, depending on how you do it. But don’t write the theme like that of a fable. In italics at the beginning of the story.

Everything is not what it seems.

That sort of overwrought explicitly is annoying. The writing comes across as didactic, as if you’re writing for children. Never underestimate the intelligence of your readers. Let them figure it out.

Here is an oversimplified explanation that might help.

Scene: two married people having a conversation.

Don’t write, “Mark was nervous.”

Write, “Mark wiped the sweat from his brow.” Write, “Mark picked his teeth.”

Have you ever been nervous? Then write that action that will convey to the reader nervousness.

Don’t write, “Mark had been unfaithful to Melinda. He had slept with his secretary.”

Write, “Mark pocketed his left hand where his wedding band should have been. It lay still on the corner of his desk in his office.”

These sorts of implications spice up your story, so that your reader makes the connection. The reader writes the story in his or her head, the story you do not need to necessarily write. Let the reader fill in the blanks. The best essay I’ve ever read on how to convey emotion through not writing something is by Craig Clevinger (I’m reading his first novel right now, and yeah, it’s good). He uses what he calls “Slot Machine Memory.” Feel free to read that here and abandon my advice forever: http://litreactor.com/essays/craig-clevenger/the-devil-in-the-details.

When every word counts, leaving some out is a good thing. There are some things authors include that simply are not necessary. Never write, “Travis is a jerk,” if you’ve just written a scene showing how much of a jerk Travis is. If Travis forces his employees to work through Easter weekend despite planning to plane it out to Jamaica himself, we understand the message: TRAVIS IS A JERK.

What do you think about this method of writing? Do you feel writers put too much in or leave too much out? I think it depends on the story. The find the right mixture of what to tell, what not to—that’s very difficult. Write on, writer friends. Write on.

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About Derek Berry

Derek Berry is a novelist and spoken word poet. Derek is the author of Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County (PRA Publishing, 2016). He co-founded and organizes The Unspoken Word, a literary non-profit based out of Charleston, SC, which provides an intendent home for the poetic arts through regular readings, workshops, and community fundraisers. He is on the Executive Board of the Charleston Poetry Festival, the inaugural production of which will be Fall 2017. His work has appeared in The Southern Tablet, Cattywampus, Charleston Currents, Illuminations, RiverSedge, and other journals.He has performed in venues across the United States and Germany. He has worked as a photographer’s assistant, busboy, and bookseller. He currently works at a curation facility for Cold War History.

Posted on November 12, 2011, in Blogging, books, Characters, novel, Word Salad, writer, Writing, writing advice and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This is something I’m guilty of myself, telling and not showing. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. I just utilized the “like” button. Hope you don’t mind… 😉

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