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“Less is more” is one of those phrases I’ve always liked the sound of. The line itself is a shining example of the minimalist ethos: spare, direct, a combination of three words that contains a world of meaning. The maxim has hidden depths and its elegance is hard to miss. Unless holed up in an underground bunker, we’ve all come across it at some point in our lives. It has such a familiar ring to it partly because corporate media and the advertising industry flaunt in our face, almost always bending it out of shape as a catchword to suit their needs.
Despite its familiarity – or precisely because of it – I’ve never given the phrase the attention it deserves. But the moment is here: the full impact of the line dawned on me when I started re-working the opening chapters of my novel. I am starting to chant it like a mantra as I go through the pages, shearing scissors in hand. The phrase is fast becoming friend and philosopher, voice of reason, guiding light.
Novelists are caught in a double bind. The novel is a sprawling expanse that offers us the scope for detailed excavation and explanation. The roominess of the novelistic form is tempting. It seduces you into unlocking the floodgates and letting words pour out. But verbiage without precision is dangerous. It turns off readers faster than you can say “postmodern.” The challenge is to find the right balance – give away enough, withhold the rest. Resist the temptation to explain in excess. Strip it down. Lose the flab. Where two words will do, don’t use twenty. If the narrative is being weighed down by too much backstory, find the strength to be ruthless and weed out the excess baggage.
Not that it is easy to do. One of the dilemmas I face while working on my novel is the question of how much backstory to include. I feel a compulsion to share every detail about the cast of characters with my readers. Even the faintest ripple that crossed the characters’ lives seems relevant. If something happened to X when she was 16 and my novel is set in a timeframe when she is 50, how can I not spend two (or more) pages on painting a picture of her past? Will the reader care about X if I withhold the backstory? Is X in danger of being misunderstood for good? It is an agonizing decision to have to make.
In an earlier draft of my novel, I had managed to include the backstory of all the characters in some detail. But the draft ended up sounding like pages and pages of notes I had compiled on the characters instead of a story that lived and breathed and flowed seamlessly. The backstory dragged the narrative down. It got in the way of pacing and rhythm and generally made a nuisance of itself. Instead of making things clear, it became an unwelcome distraction. Too much information was being fed to the reader, too little was left unsaid. I decided to step back and make room for the reader’s imagination to come into play. Out came the shearing scissors and I started work on a revised draft.
Writers who trust in “less is more” have great faith in the reader’s imagination. Hemingway and Raymond Carver excelled at it. Lydia Davis does it with panache. They use simple, direct prose to grapple with complex plots. A paragraph written in Davis’s trademark style can paint a searing picture of a character’s inner life more effectively than pages of descriptive prose. Every word hits home. Every phrase cuts to the bone.
Minimalism is not limited to literature’s threshold. It has shaped music, art, and architecture in significant ways. Japanese culture has admired the tradition of minimalism from ancient times for its elegant simplicity and quiet taste. Whether painting a canvas or building a temple, stripping down a work to its fundamental features is considered an act of aesthetic innovation. Zen Buddhists have their own take on it – they advise us to live more fulfilled lives by ‘doing less’ and devoting our focus to a few chosen tasks rather than scrambling around to take on a million things at the same time.
As in life, so in writing. Keep it simple. Draw the reader into the heart of the story with spare, direct prose. Trust in the power of simplicity. It can work wonders.
Vineetha Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, "A Happy Place and Other Stories" (HarperCollins). She received an honorary mention in the Anton Chekhov Prize for Short Fiction 2020 and was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Award in 2018. Her fiction has appeared in Gravel, the Santa Fe Writers' Project Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and "The Best Asian Short Stories 2018" (Kitaab, Singapore).