On Writing – U is for Understatement

In a previous post, I talked about my fondness for the joys of a good old root and branch word cull. I could happily spend the rest of my days hacking, slashing, chopping and slicing away at my prose until I vaguely happy with it –  but  understatement is also at the top of my serial culling agenda.

When I’m scratching away in my wee writerly cubbyhole, there’s a tape loop continuously playing inside my head that reminds me to  “understate, understate, understate.” For me, understatement is the absolute divine rule of writing, but like every other divine rule known to man, it is oh so simple to break, and ruin all your hard work.

The following examples illustrate what I mean. The first extract is taken from one of the earliest drafts of Painting by Numbers. Through some careful micro-editing, I think I managed to transform a slightly overblown melodramatic moment, into something more understated and ambiguous.

Do you agree?

Draft 1

The girl was standing in the entrance, staring at him. He was suddenly aware of how weird he might look, hunched over, peering at the painting through the distorted fish eye lens of a magnifying glass. He sat down and pretended to wri some calculations in his notebook. She approached and stood behind him. He could hear her laboured breathing; the same click and wheeze as she inhaled. The hairs on his neck started to rise and his knee began to vibrate.  She walked around, slowly, her body twisting and  shifting sideways towards the bench. Now she was directly in front of him, obliterating his view of the painting. She inched closer, to within two feet. He looked up. She was staring over his shoulder at the painting opposite. He traced the line of her spine through the fabric of her wet jacket. She inched closer still. He could smell the rain on her clothes and feel the pangs of longing begin to claw at his chest. He swallowed and attempted to speak but his mouth was dry and refused to articulate a sound.  He tried again.

       “Excuse me miss. Er but I’m trying to study the painting there?’ He pointed towards the canvas, narrowly missing her leg.

She looked down at him and smiled. “I’m sorry, am I in your way?”

       “Well, eh. Yes.. sorry.” His apology seemed completely inadequate and hopeless, and he turned back nervously to his notebook. She stepped to one side, but remained too close.

          “I’ve got a thing about this painting,” she said.

Draft 2

The girl was standing in the entrance, staring at him. He was aware of how odd he must have looked, hunched over, peering at the painting through a magnifying glass. He sat down and pretended to write something in his notebook. She approached and stood behind him. He could hear her breathing; the same click and wheeze as she inhaled. The hairs on his neck started to rise. She walked around, slowly, her body shifting sideways towards the bench. Now she was directly in front of him, blocking his view. She inched closer, to within two feet. He looked up. She was staring over his shoulder at the painting opposite. Closer still. He could smell the rain on her clothes. He attempted to speak but his mouth was dry. He tried again.

     “Excuse me, miss, but I’m trying to —” he pointed, narrowly missing her leg. She looked down at him and smiled.

      “I’m sorry, am I in your way?”

      “Well, eh– yes, sorry.” She stepped to one side, but remained too close. “I’ve got a thing about this painting,” she said.

  ***

FINALIST – THE PEOPLE’S BOOK PRIZE - PAINTING BY NUMBERS – Tom Gillespie’s critically acclaimed, surreal thriller is available in digital and printed formats from    Amazon UK/Amazon US and all good online stores.

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3 Responses to On Writing – U is for Understatement

  1. Helen Howell says:

    I always think less is more – I think a really good rule to go by is that you need to give your reader just enough information so that their imagination can do the rest. It is when the readers imagination is sparked that the story then becomes alive to them. When you spell everything out, not only does it bog down a story but it robs the reader of his own imagination.

    Yes definitely less is always more (Writing flash fiction helps teach a writing this skill ^_^ )

  2. Helen Howell says:

    Oops my keyboard has a mind of it’s own again (auto correct to blame) this sentence ‘ (Writing flash fiction helps teach a writing this skill ^_^ ) ‘ should have read Writing flash fiction helps teach a writer this skill.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Yes! Totally agree. But it’s not just a matter of taking the words out – I think you’ve changed the whole rhythm of the narrative. Draft 2 feels a lot more confident and sure-footed. As a reader I would trust you and continue – with Draft 1, I wouldn’t have done.

    Good post!

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