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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Baby Shoes, never worn: The Power of Brevity

"For Sale: Baby Shoes, never worn."

This super short has been popping up lately, reinvigorated, perhaps, by Stephen King's recent tweet. This super short/"flash fiction" which has been attributed to Hemingway (although, who knows?) is powerful no matter who wrote it. The first time I encountered it, I sat for a moment and then started tearing up -- although we have established previously that I am a crier, so this might not be so miraculous, it still says something for the power of words that six of them could get you going.

Which brings us to today's topic: the power of brevity.

There is a tendency in modern entertainment to over-explain. You may or may not have noticed it, but you will now. The books that overflow with epilogues. The movies rely on overbearing voice overs. The music that repeats itself ad nauseam just to make sure that we really understand that Adele is totally rolling in the deep right now.* Consumers aren't required to draw their own conclusions. But what about when they are expected to? What about when a finale doesn't tie up all the ends, when a series doesn't let you know "what happens now"? What about when we don't get a prompt yet adequate, "and they all lived happily ever after"?

There's usually two possible reactions to the loose ends or open spaces: either the audience is upset and left feeling unsatisfied or cheated, or they settle with what they've been given and start thinking.

Unfortunately, as we all know, it's a lot easier to get worked up and start complaining than it is to sit and think. Perhaps that's why so much entertainment has taken to spoon-feeding us the endings. But that doesn't mean that the unanswered question, the ambiguous ending, is a bad thing.

Now, back to that Hemingway(?) super short. The thing about flash fiction is that people can't argue with it or whine at it for its incompleteness. That is its purpose: to prompt a story rather than tell the whole thing through. Readers fill in the blanks on their own, they create their own story around it, and that invitation to the reader to participate in the creation process is powerful.

This isn't exclusive to flash fiction. There are many authors who do this in their novels, authors who have embraced brevity over verbosity with astounding success. Some of the most well-crafted novels are amongst the shortest. While I have respect for "tome-literature" (I think I just made that up, but think War and Peace and Les Miserables), I can't deny that part of me thinks The Great GatsbyThe Stranger and The Awakening did it better. They may not have the scope of a Moby Dick or a Shogun, but they manage to be powerful and influential beyond their pages

And now, my assertion: brevity is worth striving for. Challenge yourself to challenge your readers. Allow some details to go unexplained, some events to remain up in the air. Invite your readers to imagine the answers. Cloak your characters in some mystery, inject your novel with some small portion of uncertainty, always do your best to hold something back.

It's not that you can't have the answers. Does your main character have a gruesome scar? Maybe you know how they got it, but do you need to tell the reader? Keep them guessing. Playing games may not be advisable in your dating life (or is it? I don't know, I'm not a romance columnist) but it is certainly advisable in your writing. Toy with them, leave them guessing and longing for an answer and leave them wondering.

"But Blog-Lady, isn't this advise in conflict with the whole 'Don't Hobbit your readers' thing?"

...No. Because we're not talking about a douchey "gimme more your money" cliffhanger, we're talking about not being afraid to challenge your readers.

With many words, you can tell them everything. With few words, you can tell them anything.

*This last one probably isn't actually a symptom of over-explanation, but I needed a third example.

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