Less is more – On Wings of Steel

John Ulm, son of CTP ULm, with Charles Kingsford Smith in 1935

At the moment my editor and I are wrestling with the concept of less is more. I believe wholeheartedly in this seemingly contradictory notion which is about creating more emotional impact in a story by leaving out some of the detail. Short, but absolutely precise, sentences move the story to the point where it tugs at the heart strings. Of course there has to be enough background information to make readers feel that they know the characters and have some sense of what is going to happen. But the temptation to make the punch line too flowery, too poetic, or just those few words too long, is something that has to be resisted – in my case, constantly.

However, there are times when I want to use the rhythm of a sentence, as well as the words, to give readers a sense of what is happening. This week Johnny, the main character in On Wings of Steel, has been waiting impatiently for an important date on his calendar to arrive. He has been counting the days by crossing each one off as it passes until, finally, the great day has come. Johnny has carefully made his preparations and checked them off, one by one, from his list. Then he has checked them off again – and again. At last the day dawns and he wakes with a feeling of excitement.

“Something light and fluttery stirs in my stomach [and I can feel a smile spreading across my face].”  In this case less is more and we took out the last part of the sentence – the part inside the square brackets. But it’s only morning and Johnny’s date with destiny is in the afternoon. How will he fill in the time?

“I get out bread, butter, honey, make toast, cut an orange in half and squeeze the juice into a jug. The rest of the morning drags by.” This is a very long sentence and the four commas draw it out even more. In most instances I would edit this down significantly, but in this case I need the reader to feel as if time is passing slowly, the hours are dragging by, just as they are for Johnny.

As always in writing there are no hard and fast rules. What suits one situation doesn’t suit another and you have to be willing to change your mind. Whether its on the advice of your editor or because your own inner radar is sending out an alert, everything must be examined with an open mind.

So, less is more – except when the rhythm of a sentence dictates that more is not quite enough. Back to the editing!

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