In Writing, Sometimes Less Is More

One of the things we always struggle with as writers is knowing how much detail to provide in a given scene. Too little, and you haven’t given the reader enough of a sketch to complete the illusion. Too much, and you risk boring the reader, or depriving her of the chance to use her own imagination to fill in the picture. To make matters worse, the balance is different for every reader. You will never be able to please everyone.

Starman Jones by Robert A. HeinleinWhat got me thinking of this was Heinlein’s young adult classic Starman Jones. I first read this book in a library hardcover as a, well, young adult, and certain scenes have stuck with me ever since. I recently downloaded the audiobook from Audible, and started reliving the story of a young man’s journey from vagabond to starship astrogator. (It holds up remarkably well, despite the basic premise—that starship jumps would be calculated at lightning speed with paper and pencil—now seeming ridiculous.)

Early on, there’s a scene where Max is running away from his no-good stepfather, and he risks hoofing it through a tunnel where ring-jumping trains blast by at supersonic speed. He makes it through by the skin of his teeth…

“He reached the far end with throat burned dry and heart laboring; there he plunged downhill regardless of the sudden roughening of his path as he left the tunnel and hit the maintenance track.  He did not slow up until he stood under stilt supports so high that the ring above looked small.  There he stood still and fought to catch his breath.

“He was slammed forward and knocked off his feet.

“He picked himself up groggily, eventually remembered where he was and realized that he had been knocked cold. There was blood on one cheek and his hands and elbows were raw.  It was not until he noticed these that he realized what had happened; a train had passed right over him.”

Those lines go by pretty fast, especially in the audio narration. But my first reading of them left an image scored in my memory: the magnificent silver ring trains, lancing through the hoops across the countryside; the peril of venturing too close, much less into the tunnel; and the moment of truth, when an unscheduled train blasts overhead, the concussion wave nearly killing our hero before he can get more than shouting distance from home. That scene took pages, in my memory—in my imagination. But the core of it was just one line: “He was slammed forward and knocked off his feet.”

Did that scene hold the same power for every reader? Maybe not. But maybe for some, it did.

Where does that leave the rest of us, following in Heinlein’s footsteps? Trying to decide, scene by scene, what to tell and what to leave out. Writing, rewriting…

In case you wondered what I was up to with the Reefs of Time rewrite.

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