Writing & Creating Magic: When Less is MORE

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Mr. Muggles.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons courtesy of Mr. Muggles.

Today, we are going to hear from my Panster Plotting Maven Jami Gold. What are some of the essentials for creating magic in our fiction? Sometimes, the answer is simpler than we might believe ;).

Author Jami Gold

Author Jami Gold

For many things in life, more is better. In stores, we see packaging with “Bonus 10% extra!”, “Now even bigger!”, and “Twice the number of chocolate chips per cookie!” (That last one is unquestionably better. One of my greatest achievements is making chocolate chip cookies with just enough batter to glue the chips together. Heh.)

But in writing, the standard beliefs don’t always apply. More adverbs or adjectives don’t make our writing better. Excessive word counts often indicate fluff writing. And going into excruciating detail about every item in a room makes for boring reading.

We especially tend to make these mistakes when we first start writing. We might think readers need to picture the scene exactly like we do, so we describe every smile, sigh, and nod until they become cliché. When we hear advice about using specific details, we might think that means we shouldn’t just mention that the hero ran through the trees, we should say oak trees. Or even better, a mixture of sun-dappled, old-growth oak and maple trees. If some details are good, more is better, right?

Um, no.

Providing too much detail causes many problems, from word count to reader boredom. But there’s another issue with too much information that we might not think about. We need to provide readers room to use their imagination.

We touched on this “leaving readers room” concept when discussing how to handle intense emotional scenes. The same idea applies to many other aspects of writing as well.

Often what makes a scene feel shown instead of told isn’t about how many details we’ve stuffed in, but about how deeply we’ve pulled readers into the story. And readers will usually be pulled more into stories when their imagination is engaged.

That means not spelling out every detail for them. Instead, give readers just the highlights and let their imagination fill in the rest.

Less Information Equals More Imagination

This concept of aiming for less can be difficult. It’s easy to fall into the “more is better” trap, but let’s take a look at two different aspects of storytelling where less can actually be more.

From a Writer’s Perspective

Some writers need a story plotted out in advance before they can start writing. I’m not one of them.

On WANATribe, we’ve been having a discussion about how to make characters seem real. Some authors complete a full biography of their characters before starting the story.

In contrast, I don’t nail down all the background details of my characters before I start. Part of this has to do with how my muse works, and part of it has to do with the idea that only by leaving my characters room to breathe in my imagination do they become living entities rather than puppets to the plot. My characters’ personalities develop more organically than what can be “predicted” by their history.

For example, I recently started a new WIP (work in progress), and I knew the heroine had been ignored her whole life. I thought that would make her quiet and insecure. Okay, great, I sit down to start writing. Nothing.

Hmm, is she too quiet? Is she just not speaking to me?

No, it turns out that even though she’d been ignored her whole life, she’s on the cusp of deciding to be assertive and aggressive—making the world pay attention to her. She doesn’t want to play the part of being shy or demure. Ha! She’s more sarcastic and cynical and straightforward than that.

In the first chapter, she survives an attack that would leave most of us scared and scarred. And she reacts like: Oh yeah? Screw you, life. Screw. You.

Um, yeah, totally different than I expected, and not something I would have come up with if I’d stuck to the psychological script I initially had in mind. *smile* For me, the less information I “know” (which might be incorrect), the easier it is for the characters to talk to me.

Other writers will have different experiences, and there’s no right or wrong method. But sometimes having less information leaves us, as writers, more room for our imagination to bloom.

From a Reader’s Perspective

I read a great post by Jason Black yesterday about the purpose of a denouement. A denouement is the section of a story that comes after the climax and before “The End,” where authors have the opportunity to tie up loose ends. However, as Jason points out in his article, a denouement can ruin a story for the reader if it’s too detailed.

Jason notes (bolding is mine):

“The deeper purpose of a denouement is to reorient the characters towards the next phase of their lives. … An audience usually wants to leave a story with the feeling that the characters are facing a new, better future.

…[Y]ou create that feeling by pointing the characters toward someplace new. Not by actually taking them there.

…[H]aving come to know [the characters] through the course of the story, we readers are finally in a position to imagine them into further life just like you imagined them into life while you were writing the story.

You had your turn. Now it’s ours, but only if you allow us to imagine what the characters might do next. If you imagine it for us, we can’t.”

He’s absolutely right. Readers often want to let their imagination free at the end of a book, and after living with these characters for however many hours, they deserve that freedom.

Beyond problematic denouements or epilogues, a similar issue can occur with teaser excerpts at the end of a book. I read the first book of a series where the heroine was happy at the ending. Aww, perfect.

However, the author included a teaser chapter for the next book in the series, and the heroine was facing problems left over from book one. Ugh. That teaser acted like an epilogue and ruined the entire first book for me. Instead of tempting me to read the next story, the teaser turned me off from the whole series forever. Not the reaction the author was going for, I’m sure. (And she was self-published, so the formatting was her choice.)

Leaving room allows imagination to fill in the spaces. Both authors and readers want to feel the sense of living, breathing stories and characters that comes from letting imagination play. As writers, we should keep that in mind before thinking that “more is better.”

Do you agree that when we use our imagination, we’re pulled more deeply into a story? Or does reading work the opposite way for you? Do you like endings with everything spelled out, or do you want some things left to the imagination? Do you write better when you’ve left room for your imagination to explore? Do you have other examples of how “less can be more”?

I LOVE hearing from you and I am certain Jami will too!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.


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  1. Great article! I must admit I have had my fluffed up, over-descriptive period too. 🙂 These days? Well, I try to leave out as many filler words as I can. Do you know how often ‘that’ can be omitted?
    Anyway, loved this and will read it again, Shoot! I’ll just share it around!

      • Josh Taghon on July 31, 2013 at 9:29 am
      • Reply

      I can relate to the “that” thing. 🙂 I used to be an editor for my college’s newspaper, and some writers slammed “that” all over their articles.

      1. And then when you tell them it is just a filler word …
        Hahahha, fill in the reaction, I think you know it. 🙂

    1. LOL! Yes to both of those for me too. I use the filler “that” when speaking all the time (or at least, I used to–I haven’t paid attention to see if I still do), so it was all over my first story. 🙂

      1. As long as you’re aware of it Jami, you can do something about it. We’re like addicts, we need that 7 step plan, or how may we need to get ‘clean’ 🙂

        1. LOL! Very true. It’s hard to improve at anything without awareness. That’s just one of many reasons feedback from others is so important. 🙂

          1. 🙂 It is, Jami.

  2. Yep, I agree with the idea more detail is not always good. I try to pick one key trait on a character and emphasize that along with one or two others and let the reader ‘fill in the gaps’ with their own imagination. Perhaps I’m too lose with that, I don’t know. I do like leaving some of the background out of my characters so later I can be surprised when they ‘grow’ during the story writing process. That is part of the fun of writing, to me.

    1. I’m with you–the discovery process is a big part of the fun of writing. 🙂

  3. Very interesting about the teaser. Did you know it was part of a series? Would that have affected your take on it? Or was the problem because she in the end didn’t grow? Curious, as I am plotting out a bit of the series and planning to leave some things unresolved.

    1. Great question! The teaser chapter was clearly marked, so it wasn’t a case of confusion. And I knew the first story was part of a series, but it had a good, wrap-up ending (not like a cliffhanger).

      Some series follow other characters or have an entirely new conflict with the same characters. I think either of those might have worked better with this situation.

      In this case, the teaser felt like more of the same–at least as far as the emotional character arc. All the progress the she’d made emotionally was erased. I think *that’s* what really bothered me and ruined the story.

      If it’s a continuation of a question left over from a subplot, that could work. Undoing the end of the arc of the previous book is what doesn’t work, in my opinion. 🙂 Does that help?

      1. Totally helps!

        1. So many people asked about this issue in the comments here that I’m doing a post on my blog tomorrow about this issue. 🙂 Thank YOU for the post idea!

          1. Any time!

  4. As always, I agree 100%. It’s not the petty details of each item in the room, it’s how those items impact the character that matter.

    1. Exactly! An editor once told me to think of scenes as a character in motion against a backdrop. All those setting details? Backdrop–that matter only as far as the character moving or acting with them. 🙂

  5. Cool, Jami! I remember doing writing exercises in a year-long workshop I was in – no adverbs or adjectives. Wow, was that hard!

    Love your take on the denoument – I’ve been doing that without realizing it, but it’s good to do these things more deliberately, LOL. I’ll have to go back and check my latest WIP.

    A question: do you think that putting the first chapter at the end of the previous book is a bad idea, generally speaking? I wouldn’t want to have that effect on a reader.


    1. K.B. – As a reader, I agree with Jami’s take on adding the first chapter of the next book, assuming it’s the next book in a series. I’ve reached the point where I don’t read them any longer. It’s like eating a cookie and then brushing your teeth right after you finish. It’s more fun to let that sugar linger 🙂

      1. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have it there- it’s up to the reader whether they want to read it or not. I do like to whet my appetite for the next book (but usually only if the next book is available, or is going to be available soon). I don’t think it ruins anything. If you want to be happy with the book ending the way it did, don’t read the teaser. I wouldn’t blame the author for making it available to those who want it. 🙂

        I agree with everything else in this piece, though. Actually, my brother and I were talking about this last night (he’s beta reading for me). We both give up on authors who feel like they have to describe EVERYTHING. Have a little faith in your readers’ imaginations. They’ll appreciate it.

        1. Hi Kate, I agree that it’s not *always* a bad idea. I’ll be diving into this more on my blog tomorrow, but everyone is bringing up such great points about it. Thanks! 🙂

      2. LOL! Love your description of the first chapter issue. 🙂

    2. Wow! Yes, it would be hard to have *no* adverbs or adjectives. Kristen once pointed out to me that if you modify everything, you end up modifying (emphasizing) nothing, and that’s so true.

      Heather asked more about that first chapter issue above as well, and I think I’ll turn my thoughts about that into a blog post. 🙂 Look for it tomorrow on my blog!

  6. Awesome post. My first round of editing goes into dropping those extra words. I agree less is more. When I am reading, I have a very active imagination and don’t like every detail spelled out. That’s why I read! Thanks for posting.

    1. Yes, if everything is spelled out, it’s too much like spoon-feeding the reader, which as the term “spoon-feeding” implies, can be insulting. 🙂

  7. Your timing is perfect. I have been having long discussions with friends on where I should go with my WIP. Do I let the reader know if the antagonist is really crazy or is she just faking it? The answer changes the whole look of the book – but perhaps it is best to let the reader figure that out. Let them debate and argue about it, the more the better. Thanks for this tip. I think you answered my question concerning my ending.

    1. Beta readers can be great for this too. 🙂 I did a post last week about prologues and when they can help or hurt our story. This comes down to whether the reader’s tension (urge to turn the page and find out what happens) is higher with the mystery of *not* knowing or the dread of knowing and waiting for the disaster. Good luck with your story!

    • Josh Taghon on July 31, 2013 at 9:31 am
    • Reply

    Great post. I always thought of my own imagination, but I never considered readers’ imaginations.

    1. Yes, as writers, we often write for ourselves and edit with the reader in mind–what’s going to help them best understand and/or enjoy the story. 🙂

  8. I agree that less detail is often better, unless that detail provides emotional clues. There’s no point in telling us the character is surrounded by “oak” trees, unless the author is trying to convey the impressions of strong, sturdy trees in a forbidding forest (or something like that). Otherwise I’d rather let the reader visualize whichever trees he prefers.

    Not all writers believe this, though. I’ve run into a couple of articles that suggest if you aren’t giving these kinds of details, then you’re being lazy and “telling” when you should be “showing.”

    1. Exactly! If those details help convey a mood or tone, by all means include a few. 🙂

      As for crazy advice, I had one contest judge pick on me for the heroine not describing the carpet in her bedroom. Um, I never pay attention to the carpet in my own room. LOL! It would be *out* of character to describe anything about it.

  9. Reblogged this on Shah's Scribbles and commented:
    And another spectacular post form the brilliant Jami Gold, via the marvellous Kristen Lamb’s blog. How do you create your magic?

    1. Thanks Shah! 🙂

  10. Reblogged this on Through Fire The Pen Arose.

    1. Thanks Jennifer!

  11. I definitely agree that less is often better. I think it’s partly a matter of balance – more action can mean the feelings are drowned out, more description without more event can slow things to a crawl, more unnecessary ‘than’s just fills up your word count.

    1. Very true about balance. Margie Lawson teaches a method to see action vs. dialogue vs. setting vs. emotion, etc. using colored markers, so we have visual feedback on that balance. I don’t usually take the time to do it, but when a scene feels “off,” it’s a great way to diagnose the problem.

      1. That’s a really good idea, and a good way of applying different parts of the brain to writing. I’ll give it a go next time something seems off. Thanks!

        1. I just remembered that I did a post about editing with color-coding. LOL! Margie Lawson’s EDIT method is one of the techniques I talk about here: http://jamigold.com/2012/02/ask-jami-editing-tips-how-to-use-color-coding/

          I hope that helps! 🙂

          1. That’s great – thanks very much. Now to go dig out my old highlighter pens.

  12. How much detail depends entirely on the story. When I’m reading a period piece, such as Clive Cussler’s Isaac Bell novels, the small details draw a rich picture that I couldn’t imagine myself. Whereas the novel I just finished, Shadow Flight by Joe Weber, included details, such as the engine thrust of various jet aircraft and their ordinance compliment that was an unnecessary distraction. That irritated me a bit and I glazed through this information.

    As to the denouements – I like having the details cleared up at the end, but I also like to know the characters will continue without having the ‘what’ spelled out.

    As to including the first chapter of the sequel – no. Maybe a scene excerpt from somewhere other than the first chapter, but no more than that.

    1. Very true that the *amount* of detail will vary from story to story. This post certainly isn’t meant to rally for *no* detail. 🙂 Certain genres or historical periods need enough detail to help build the “world.” (I write paranormal, so worldbuilding is often about choosing the *right* details. 🙂 )

      Great way to put the best type of denouements! Yes, we want things cleared up but not necessarily the details of *what* their continuation will look like.

      So many people here commented on the first chapter of a sequel issue, that I’ll be posting about it on my blog tomorrow. 🙂 Thanks for chiming in!

  13. I agree! I’m in the editing process now and working hard to cut unnecessary description. Now when I look at my early work, or even work some are producing, I cringe, for it’s not a well lit room, but instead a room so bright it turns my retinas to toast.

    1. LOL! Yes, some of my early overwriting is one of the things that make me cringe the most. 🙂

  14. Great post, Jami. I so agree with you about not defining the character too minutely; gives them room to grow. I am often as surprised by my characters as my readers are! And the discussion of denouement is perfect; I have understood this from an emotional standpoint, but hadn’t really dissected it like this. Excellent tips.

    1. Yes, I love that element of surprise from our characters. That’s one of the best parts of writing for me! 🙂

  15. Wonderful post! I have not been published yet (aside from my freelance writing), but I can say when I started working on my first novel I tried to outline every detail, by the third chapter I scraped it all. I realized I work better when I have a general idea of where the story is going and let my imagination fill in the blanks, when I just write I get more done and I find the story comes out better then it ever did when I tried an outline. My show not tell still leaves a little to be desired, so I can say this post has definitely helped, thank you both 🙂 and happy writing.

    1. I’m happy to help! 🙂 I’m a reformed plotter myself, so I very well know the benefit of letting the story guide me.

      In October, I’ll be teaching a workshop on planning a story “just enough” so us pantsers can fast draft through Kristen’s WANA International. I have a signup on my website (http://jamigold.com/workshops) if that sounds interesting. 🙂

      1. Thank you 🙂 If I could I would, but thank you any way.

  16. I hate teaser chapters. Quite apart from being teased with something new, there’s the shock of realising the story you are actually reading and enjoying has ended when you thought you were only 90% through…

    In my last novel, at one point I started describing the shopping in tedious detail, because I wanted to stress to the reader just how tediously complex the shopping was. I don’t know that it works very well.

    1. Ooo, great point about the story ending sooner than we thought. Yes, that bugs me too. 🙂

      I think the details in that circumstance could work if you interspersed them with character internalization or emotion, so we understand how the tedium is affecting them. Then the reader would be less likely to skip the section from boredom and more likely to think “Yeah, I hear you, character. This *is* ridiculous.” 🙂 Good luck with it!

    • Jessica Burde on July 31, 2013 at 11:27 am
    • Reply

    You know, I hear this advice all the time, and I’m not entirely sure I agree. I think for some readers the excessive detail works. If it doesn’t, how do writers like Robert Jordan, famous for his excessive detail (I know fantasy readers who make jokes about ‘Jordaning’ for writers who drone on and on). Tolkien is another one, though that may in part be that the expected style was different when he was writing.

    But if too much detail is always a bad thing, how do these guys manage to become so popular?

    I think there is an audience for excessive detail. It isn’t an audience I want to write for, but it’s there for writers who do want to make Jordaning (or Tolkiening) part of their style. You just need to work harder to find it.

    1. LOL! How did E.L.James get popular despite her writing quality? Wait, don’t answer that. 😉

      My point is that sometimes mild popularity breeds more popularity. Also, genre *does* make a difference. Fantasy often breaks the rules for prologues, omniscient POV, etc. and overly detailed writing probably applies as well.

      That said, you’re absolutely right that there are audiences who long for the styles of older fantasies or older classics. As you pointed out, however, that audience is not necessarily mainstream anymore. Thanks for the great comment!

  17. I’m 100% with you on details, Jami! Jane Austen never told us anything about Elizabeth Bennett’s looks except that she had “fine eyes.” I think authors who put in too much detail aren’t trusting their readers. They’re trying to control too much. I do know–as Jessica Burde says above–that some super-detail oriented writers have succeeded. But I think that’s because their storytelling manages to overcome the over-description. Minute details are wonderful in fiction. A cleverly placed detail can tell so much about a character. But just one. Not 100.

    1. Exactly! Some writers try to control too much. I’m a control freak about many things, but when I catch myself writing too many details, I ask myself, “Will it *really* change the story if the reader imagines it “this” way instead of “that” way?” Usually, the answer is no. 🙂

      Maybe that’s the question we should ask ourselves when we struggle to know whether it’s an important detail or not. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

  18. Reblogged this on Considerable and commented:
    An excellent article to keep in mind during revision!

    1. Thanks Katie! 🙂

  19. Nice post, Jami. I definitely jibe with the pantser method. I like how you call it “letting the characters breathe”. Yes. I can see this. I’ve learned so much about my characters by starting to write with only general impressions of who they are.

    But once I get going, I definitely need to devote time to plotting. Otherwise, I end up writing into dead ends or down rabbit holes. Often at that point, I have to rewrite significant portions of the beginning, but it’s so worth it to have that spontaneous time of discovery when I first begin.

    1. Yes, as I mentioned in another comment, I’m a reformed plotter. 🙂

      You might be interested in my “plotting for pantsers” workshop I’ll be offering in October with Kristen’s WANA International. I share techniques and worksheets for planning our story “just enough” to fast draft and not end up in those dead ends. I have a sign-up page at http://jamigold.com/workshops if that sounds interesting. 🙂

  20. I’ve often had trouble trying to explain that details CAN be overdone and was so happy to see it laid out in this post. It stands to reason that the reader would want to use their imagination, after all, the first complaint about a book-turned-movie trailer is, “That isn’t how I pictured _____.” The method I enjoy when reading is to have the setting/character introduced and described right off the bat and only include reminders of those details if necessary.

    I also am grateful that you included how to go about a denouement. It’s an extension of the detail problem I never considered and that perspective will help me a lot as I go forward. Thank you, Jami and Kristen!

    1. Yes, great point about books-to-movies! If readers *didn’t* use their imagination, we’d never hear that complaint. 🙂

  21. Funny you should mention an excerpt at the end of a book that makes you feel “uck.” I know it’s used as a marketing tool, but I wish excerpts weren’t included at the end of books. Of course, I could NOT read them, but I have no self-control!

    1. LOL! I’m with you on the self-control. Just like how I can’t *not* read a prologue either, no matter how bad it is. 🙂

      I’ll be talking more about that excerpt issue on my blog tomorrow because so many people brought it up today.

  22. My two FAVORITE bloggers of ALL time!!!!!!! Jami Gold and Kristen Lamb…I feel privileged to have stopped by today!
    I totally agree with you, Jami, Less Information Equals More Imagination! Too many extraneous detail boggs down a story. They slow it down and siphon off the magic.
    I’m revising again right now and will keep all of your teaching in mind!
    Thanks for your wisdom, both Jami and Kristen 🙂
    Have a great evening,

    1. *blush* Aww, thank you, Tamara.

      Yes, “bogging down a story” is a great way to put it. 🙂

  23. a Writers job, is to tell his or her story and that includes what that writer sees in their mind as they create the story and the world it takes place in.

    is there room for a readers imagination yes, but not at the expense of the world the writer is creating or the vision he/she wants to get across because it impacts the story. maybe our imagination should be fired to see a new world the world of the author not the generic world our minds conjure for us based on our lives. Is that not the point to fiction in the first place.

    one of the examples above . “a mixture of sun-dappled, old-growth oak and maple” is a perfect example for me.. it shows you what the writer was seeing, the old stately oaks and the branching maple trees. That fires my imagination right there I can see it in my mind the beams of sunlight, falling on the leaves and the hazy gold green light that slips through the canopy to splash on the leaf covered forest floor under the spreading bows, as opposed to generic forest with straight trees and cookie cutter leaves my mind might conjure with ” hero ran through the woods on a sunny day”

    just my two cents of course.

    1. As I mentioned in a comment above, this post certainly isn’t a call to not include any details at all! 🙂

      I write paranormal stories, so I have to include many details to “build” the world. The point is including the details that matter to the story vs. those that don’t. If the old-growth oak and maple trees were important to the tone, mood, worldbuilding, or character’s POV, those would be appropriate details to include. Absolutely.

      However, if the details are important to the writer and *not* to the character (that is, would the character really be noticing or thinking that much about them?), then we’re forcing a more distant POV by including the details. Maybe the story *is* omniscient, so that’s not a big deal. But if it’s a limited 3rd person, deep 3rd person, or 1st person POV, we’re better off using the character’s attention as a guide.

    • dianadall on July 31, 2013 at 2:52 pm
    • Reply

    One of my characters showed up in my dreams and changed her name from the one I had given her in the novel. The new name fits the direction she is taking her character. And since I accepted her name change she’s also changed her hair color! Wild. Bazaar. Exciting to roll with the creative flow. Diane D.
    Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry