Miss Information, Meet Mr. Minimalism

You know that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean when Jack Sparrow is piloting the ship through a storm? Will Sparrow says something along the lines of, “How is he supposed to find the Isla de Muerta with a compass that doesn’t point north?” And Gibbs replies, “Aye, but he’s not trying to find north is he?”

Well here’s an interesting little tidbit about that scene. Originally in the script it was explicitly stated that the compass only pointed to the Isla de Muerta. Luckily for the sequels that line was cut.

But even without the fact that the sequels needed to make a plot token out of the compass, I would argue that the story is simply better without that exposition.

Why? Because we don’t need it. All we need to know is that the compass is going to help them get to the Isla de Muerta somehow. We don’t need to know what it does. We don’t need to know how it does it. We don’t need to know the back story of the dude who built the compass. We only need what is relevant to the story.

This is something that I noticed a lot, during the time me and Ellie were drafting our as-yet-unnamed story. Before we started writing we did a lot of preplanning. We talked out a lot of history for our world. We discussed the mechanics of how things worked. We gave our characters deep and complex back stories.

And almost none of it made it into the story. Why? Because it didn’t matter. By and large, information rarely does. Give your readers enough to let them know what’s going on and leave it at that.

In a way, it’s a lot like description. You can go absolutely crazy with description thinking you’re making your world feel more real, drawing your readers deeper into the story. But at the end of the day, a story is about stuff happening. (A story is about stuff happening at the beginning of the day too. And at pretty much any other time. Just, you know, covering my bases here.)

That isn’t to say that you can’t write a good story with a lot of information in it. David Webber’s excellent Honor Harrington series is filled to the brim with technical specifications for the various spaceships featured, and detailed descriptions of how everything works. But while those massive clumps of information are interesting enough in their way, the overall story could easily survive without them.

And as always, the theme here is balance. Not everyone needs to be as minimalist as I am with description and information. But if you find yourself given to long infodumps, telling something about how your world works, really consider cutting back at least some of that information.

Remember, you’re not writing a history book for your fantasy world, or composing an operators manual for your hero’s spaceship.

You’re telling a story.

Everything else is just filler.

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7 responses to “Miss Information, Meet Mr. Minimalism

  1. What a good post. I never knew that tit-bit about the compass line being cut. I think description and back story can be tricky at times. I’ve been guilty on more than one occassion of not putting in enough while trying to evade adding too much. 🙂

  2. A different perspective:
    While anything can be over done, I think brevity is a testament to the rampant ADD-laden world in which we live.
    In the beginning, before TV, if an author wanted the reader to know the setting, or what a character was wearing, they had to explain it with WORDS. This was sometimes carried way too far (see anything by Nathanael Hawthorn). Then came TV – with pictures – and things became briefer, because the same story could be told visually (not so bad, and the writer sometimes was allowed to actually describe what he wanted to see on the screen – as long as he was brief). But not satisfied, someone created MTV, where everything was very brief – and a whole generation grew up wanting everything to be as short as possible. With computers came the internet, emails and the birth of emoticons – in case writing out or reading a whole word took too long. When emails proved to slow, we got FB and now Twitter which restricts you to a hundred characters or so and forces people to squash words into almost unintelligible strings of consonants. In today’s world of instant everything, who has time to read a story? With, you know, actual words? And some of them describe people, places and things. Words take up space. They take TIME to read. Who has time to read a story when you can know instantly what your friends and associates are doing every minute of every day – no matter how mundane – as long as it’s brief. We storytellers must either adapt or become fossils. I fear the day when Sesame Street (if it even continues to exist) will say something like: “Today’s story is the letter ‘R’.”

    • First, let me thank you for leaving such a detailed and well-thought-out comment here. I appreciate you sharing your opinion in such a lucid way.
      In general, I’d say I would agree with you on some level. There seems to be a force in any society that seeks to dumb down things to their most basic components, removing the need for any thought or mental work at all.
      However, having said that, I can tell you that I did not grow up with television. There just wasn’t one in our house during the first ten years of my life. Books were pretty much my sole source of entertainment. Add to that the fact that I’ve never knowingly watched one second of MTV in my life. And yet, even I find too much description or information to be tedious and unnecessary, leading me to skip past them, both as a reader and as a writer.
      Of course others might feel differently. In fact I’ve been told by several readers that they wished I had more description in my stories. But this blog is not ,strictly speaking, objective. It isn’t meant to be. I’m writing from my own perspective about my personal thoughts about writing in particular and stories in general. These are the rules I’ve set down for myself.
      Disagreement is natural and welcome. And, as I am wont to point out, balance is the key to pretty much everything, in writing and in life. So again, thank you for your comment. I’m glad that I have at least been able to provoke a reaction. 🙂

      • I appreciate your appreciation but I didn’t do such a good job. I should have made very clear that my perspective was about the subject in general and not aimed at you in particular. You raised the subject and I expressed myself – but it most assuredly wasn’t even a friendly attack on you or response to you personally. I apologize if I gave that impression .
        I am interested in broadening the issue- you feel that stories can contain too much description (that can get in the way of telling the story) but do you feel the same way about novels? Is it not the job of the author to paint a picture? I think (hope) we can all agree that genre subjects, science fiction, fantasy, etc., and specialized genre, spies, wall street, political, etc., all require additional description to bring the reader into the world. This as opposed to, say, a more ordinary, everyday story about a couple meeting and falling in love – which requires no special explanation or description, unless one of the couple is an alien : )
        I like your writing, I like that you allow your readers to peer into your personal world, and I wish you great success in all your endeavors.

        Sincerely,
        Alex Keir

        P.S.: But I still worry about stories becoming so devoid of description and background as to lose their richness. NOT your stories, just stories in general. People are in a great rush these days, but they don’t seem to be going anywhere – taking a little time, getting to know characters, it brings them to life – IMHO.

  3. I feel like you and I are both very much about the idea of balance, and that makes me glad.

    China Mieville is a writer who manages to put in lots and lots and LOTS of information about the world, but he does through telling the story. His worlds are convoluted and complicated and you need to just let yourself go with the story and accept that you’ll figure out how the language/machinery/culture works as you go along. Readers need to trust writers, but for that, writers have to be trustworthy and suck the readers in from the beginning. Usually, long-winded descriptions or explanations don’t do that.

  4. I read once that when filmmakers get together, instead of saying “Liked your movie. Good characters,” or “Liked your movie. Exquisite theme,” they most often say, “Liked your film. Good choices.”

    I’m realizing more and more than in the craft of story-telling, it’s the choices we make about what to include and what to leave out that really make the difference.

  5. Pingback: From the Mail Bag (Sort of): On Description | Albert Berg's Unsanity Files

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