There’s this thought out there that the longer the novel is, the more literary it is. The ones that could double as doorstops? Masterpieces. The slimmer volumes, on the other hand, must not be worth the price tag.
While many tomes, from War and Peace to the last Harry Potterbook, are definitely valuable literature, it’s not their length that makes them great. And, conversely, well-done short stories and novellas can be incredibly powerful.
And they’re harder to write well, at that.
In fact, Mark Twain once famously apologized for writing a long letter, saying he didn’t have time to make it short. And anyone who’s struggled to fit everything they wanted to say into a Tweet knows exactly what he meant. (I’m talking about before they increased the character count—you could almost fit a whole novel in there now.)
Here are three reasons to practice the art of keeping it short.
1. Your Audience Is Smarter Than You Give Them Credit for
Your readers are likely to get your point the first time you make it, which is to say that there’s no need to repeat yourself, by which I mean beating a dead horse is only going to make your readers mad. In other words…
See? Are you mad at me yet?
As authors, we get so passionate about the points we’re making that we’re tempted to reiterate them several times, but there’s no need. If you make your point well the first time, the readers get it. Let it land, and move on.
2. Great Images Need No Explanation
Have you ever heard someone tell a joke and then go on to explain why it’s funny? The explanation always ruins it, doesn’t it? (You’d think I’d learn.)
The same is true for powerful images, and I see authors undercut themselves by adding explanation all the time. To borrow a clichéd but familiar example, if you say a character’s eyes are like the stormy sea, you don’t need to add, “gray and flashing.” Let the readers picture it themselves.
3. You Don’t Need to Tell Them Everything
When you were writing research papers in school, you probably learned much more about your topic than you actually wrote. That’s because a lot of your research—while interesting and valuable—just wasn’t relevant to the paper.
The same is true for fiction. While, as authors, it’s our job to know everything there is to know about everything—our characters’ recurring childhood nightmares, what was on the corner of Main and Maple before it became a hardware store, etc.—all of that information doesn’t belong in the book. What belongs are the details that give the clearest, most compelling picture of the people and places as they are right now, in this moment.
Prolific novelist Elmore Leonard’s most famous piece of advice for writers was to try to leave out the parts people skip. We would all do well to take that to heart.
To practice, take the idea to the extreme, and try writing your next scene as a Tweet. Leave the results in the comments below!