Saturday, October 18, 2014

Less is More

If you're a writer, you've probably heard this phrase a million times over. From the burnt-out, bitter creative writing teachers who try to force their twisted, rigid ideas of how to write onto you, to jumped-up, literate snob book reviewers, it seems that everyone is fond of this phrase.

But what the hell does it actually mean?

I don't claim to be an expert on writing, I just like writing stories, but I've picked up a few things along the way, and Less Is More is one of the things I think I've got a half-decent grasp on.

The basic idea of the Less Is More principle is that people will always imagine something far more interesting than anything you can come up with. Stephen King summed this principle up nicely when he said, and this isn't a direct quote but just the gist, "The prime idea behind writing a good horror story is that you take a monster and put it behind a door, and then you don't open that door for as long as possible." Now, I primarily write horror stories, so I understand this principle through that lens.

This idea goes to work best in the form of suspense. Now, I love monster stories, and the best of them are written as mysteries at first. A great example of this is the film The Tunnel.

One of the great things about this movie was that they didn't have much of a budget for it, so they were forced to keep the monster mostly in the darkness. This principle has worked before, marvelously. One of the most famous movies of all time almost wound up another B horror movie, and would have...except for the budget.

I'm talking about Jaws. Originally, Steven Spielberg wanted to feature the shark a great deal more, but due to severe budget cuts, he was forced to keep the shark mostly hidden in the water, and not reveal it until later in the film. This led to the very ominous build up and one of the greatest reveal scenes in modern cinema history.

But back to The Tunnel. The strength of this film was the fact that it almost never showed the monster in question. You see hints. You hear it, you catch glimpses of it as it hunts them, and in a very few notable shots, you do get a half-decent view of it. But even then, you never learn what it is. The Tunnel is merely a tale of grim survival, and it's pretty realistic in the sense that there's no one going around, trying to figure out where it came from, why it's doing what it's doing or even what it basically is. They just want to get away from it.

The movie ultimately leaves you wondering, what was that thing? It leaves off with a lot of questions, and this is the mark of a great story. The ones that leaves you wondering and thinking are the ones that you're going to remember the most.

And I'd also like to point out, (not that I should have to), that just because a movie leaves a lot of questions doesn't automatically make it good. There's a difference between a good mystery and plot holes.

So when it comes to the Less Is More principle, applied to writing whatever it is you happen to be writing, it's all about hinting and foreshadowing. Mention tiny clues, give vague hints and maybe, at the end of the story, allow the readers to draw their own conclusions instead of always neatly wrapping it up in a nice, easy-to-consume package. Not all readers like to be spoon-fed.

Specifically in relation to writing, a lot of reviewers, those who claim to be of the more 'literary' type, while they look down their noses at you, will slash a novel to ribbons if there's too much detail. Phrases like 'overwrought' and 'purple prose' tend to come up. I've also encountered a lot of hate for setting up atmosphere via the scenery. I don't know where all this hatred for scenery came from and I'm against it, since I love atmospheric books and tend towards atmospheric horror. What's wrong with letting the reader know it's raining and miserable outside?

While I understand the need the not go crazy when it comes to description, (I don't want to read six paragraphs about every little detail of someone's house or the forest they're walking through), I've got nothing against setting the mood, giving the story room to breathe.

When it comes to hard advice, the best I can gave is to try to strike a balance between too much and too little. This sounds obvious, and it isn't even a hard truth. Horror, (good horror, in my opinion), tends towards more. So does Cyberpunk. But faster-paced novels like action tales and thrillers tend towards less, with more tightly written narratives that are more about events and actions and dialogue and less about settings.

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