Sunday, October 3, 2010

Is Less More?

By Alex Raley

When I began writing fiction, I tried to include every thought, detail, and event that could possibly be related to the story and much that was not related. Dialogue was filled with things said that had absolutely no relevance to the story. Obviously, repetition crept in on kitten’s feet with tiger paws.

That same tendency to tell all carried over to my poetry; however, poetry taught me that less really can be more. For example, one of my early poems had over forty lines. After many revisions I finally have something that speaks to me. It is only twenty-two much shorter lines. Did I lose anything that I wanted to say? No. I have something that punches out exactly what my soul feels about an event that has hung in my memory for over sixty years.

I am not talking about brevity, which is another matter altogether. T. S. Eliot took twelve pages (more or less, depending on how it is printed out) to give us the classic “The Waste Land.” He even uses repetition – repetition that drives home his thought. An example is found in the section of the poem where he ponders the bareness of no water. “If there were water / And no rock / If there were rock / And also water /And water / . . . Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop / But there is no water.” Every line in Eliot’s poem moves his thoughts forward.

If you want both brevity and sharpness of thought, I invite you to read Galway Kinnell’s “Promissory Note.” In thirteen brief lines he captures the essence of one who knows he will precede his loved one in death and who exacts a wonderful promise from that loved one. There is no way to retell the poet’s thoughts. You can only experience them by reading Kinnell’s poem.

Though I am suggesting that the unnecessary be eliminated from writing, in the real world there are many examples of tomes being successful. My daughter introduced me to “The Girl” trilogy by Stieg Larsson. When I looked at reading five to six hundred pages per book, I thought, this is insane. What I experienced were exciting page turners. Sure there is repetition that comes primarily from constantly changing from head to head depending on whose version of the event you are hearing, and Larsson does love to tell the reader everything. But you find yourself enjoying all of it. I pondered why? I think it boils down to a compelling story, unlike anything we have read before, with good sequencing, and strong, ongoing suspense and expectation.

So, unless you envision yourself as another Larsson, work on eliminating the unnecessary. I might even suggest that you read some contemporary poets to see how they distill their thoughts into succinct lines. Poetry can inform fiction about unnecessary words. Try it.

1 comment:

Laura Puccia Valtorta said...

Alex --- do you read much Elizabeth Bishop poetry? I was re-watching a movie called "In Her Shoes," (which is an excellent story about two sisters), and in one scene Cameron Diaz reads a poem by Bishop about loss. It's a wonderfully brief statement about the pain of loss and how we try to mask that pain.

Thanks for your blog.