How to Show “Less Is More”

Less Is MoreIn my last few pieces, I went into some depth about how to teach children metaphor, all with the emphasis on shedding light on the old, favorite utterance among English and Creative Writing instructors alike: “Show me, don’t tell me.”

And, since I assert most teachers never really stop to think about how to explain what that odd phrase actually means [nor can they—usually—do it very well, themselves], I thought the subject needed to be explored some more, and then broken down into parts we can all understand, enabling those of us who find ourselves teaching children better qualified to make “show don’t tell” actually make some sense!  And, hopefully, I was able to stimulate your minds enough to help you teach such concepts, in regards to writing, to your students or your own children.

So now, I come upon another phrase often thrown around in writing—and other creative—classes, and that’s the phrase:

Less is more.  The phrase, evidently, is 19th century proverbial phrase, first found in print in Andrea del Sarto, 1855, a poem by Robert Browning.

But what, exactly, does it mean?

We grown-ups can understand the meaning easily enough, but how can we teach such an abstract idea to children?  To a child, however, it’s a nonsensical thing to say, and trying to explain the meaning can be tricky.  I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and I’ve come to a determination about why less really is “more” when it comes to creative writing or story telling…er…storyshowing.

The phrase less is more is usually applied to the creating of a scene, description of something in a narrative, or other similar instances.  So why is less more, and what does that mean?

Well, when describing…while storyshowing…we want our listeners or readers to feel like they’re “there”, as much as possible; we want to show and not tell them what’s going on in such a way as to excite their imaginations, right?

Here’s what I’ve come to realize about less is more:

When we give too many details or too much description, we actually [in my words] sort of steal or rob people’s imaginations of the privilege of filling in details, in their minds, from past experiences; doing this makes the story less intriguing [at least for adults], and even to a large degree for kids, because our imaginations are usually more vivid than even the greatest description.

The thing is, it’s not so important your reader or listener “see” the details exactly the same way as the writer has first imagined in his or her head [what writers who use too much detail typically are trying to do]; so long as the reader gets the important details to complete a picture in his or her mind, this makes for better storyshowing.

Here are a few examples:

Too much detail:

John was all muddy.  His once white, Nike shoes with the electric blue stripes and matching blue laces were now covered in mud two inches thick, with little bits of grass sticking out here and there, and the mud was up past John’s ankles, so that his socks were just as muddy as his Nike’s, and the mud had spattered his legs, white shorts, and white T-shirt, with globs of mud and spots of muddy water stains made his shirt look kind of like a Dalmatian.

Notice how you “see” all of those details but, like misdirection in a magic trick, your imagination is focused ONLY on those details, and “misses” the bigger picture?  That’s what too much attention can do in just about any circumstance of life.

Now fewer details:

John looked like he’d stepped on a mud bomb.   What made it worse was he had been dressed in white; white shoes, shorts, and T-shirt.  Now his clothes looked kind of like a Dalmatian and he stank like the swamp.

See how the image of “…like he’d stepped on a mud bomb” allows your imagination to picture a mud “bomb” “explode” beneath some kid?  The remaining, few details give you just enough to complete a picture that will be uniquely your own; you might even have someone in mind to “be” John.

The greatest novelists are known for their skill in using sparing, sketchy details when it comes to description, respecting the reader’s imagination as the most important element in storyshowing.   Children, in their excitement while writing stories, often overload with details, and most adults are probably just about as prone to this [natural] inclination.

If you can effectively teach your students to always incorporate LOOK, ASK, DECIDE, and FIND, in their own creative writing [I like the idea of making a poster visible in the classroom], as well as getting comfortable in using some basic simile and metaphor, they will quickly pick up on how to skillfully “show and not tell” and even do so by using less to make their stories more engaging.

Tags: , ,

One Response to “How to Show “Less Is More””

  1. Alin says:

    Annah, it was the best thing! The buggy would never have made it with it’s little whlees. Most people abandoned theirs by yesterday and used slings, but a whole day in the sling the age he is and my back can’t take it. Also he did a lot of running around in the mud so it was handy being able to pop him in like this when it started raining. And he slept in it too. Sweet relief!

Leave a Reply