Nov 26

Shorter Is Better (“That’s what she said.”)

The risqué ol’ joke in my title was too easy to miss. But the truth is still there — especially when it comes to modern fiction.

As they say in Hollywood, “Less is more.” In geometry they say, “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” In comedy the cleverest joke is the one liner. In poetry, the Japanese haiku, the English sonnet, or the limerick are all forms which celebrate the brevity of thought, the economy of words, and a turn, twist, flip, or surprise ending. The point of the limerick is often at the least double meaning and suggestive, or, at its most, direct, down right vulgarity. An often quoted, unknown author’s sample limerick says it well:

The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

O’Henry was best known for his short stories with a totally unexpected yet profoundly logical ending. Mark Twain once lamented to a correspondent that, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” In Hamlet Shakespeare gave the wise old character, Polonious, the line, “…brevity is the soul of wit….” And one of the more remarkable things about Earnest Hemingway’s writing which had such a profound impact on fiction of the 20th century, was both his efficient use of words and his low key style. Together they continues to influence writers to this day. There’s even an app available on the web called “Hemingway Editor” which will help you achieve some of the economy and straight forward manner Hemingway used in your words.

More modern practitioners of the word thrift include James Patterson, the modern master of best seller, including the Alex Cross series, and the late Robert B. Parker, creator of the Spencer detective series as well as the Virgil Cole-Everett Hitch series of western novels.
Patterson pointed out in one of his interviews that people today like short chapters — I’m talking about 1 to 3 or 4 page chapters. Parker got to where, particularly in his Cole-Hitch series, he would rely more on dialogue than on description — and use short chapters.

The advantages to the conciseness of both chapters and dialogue, but also using the Hemingway economy of description, make for fast, quick reading. With so many books being bought by travelers or people who are on vacation — or people who like to do their reading before they go to sleep — it is this succinct storytelling, in the form of sentences, dialogue, and chapters, that enable progress through a book rapidly. This in turn leaves the reader with a sense of accomplishment as they hastily plow through a novel no matter its length.

Another way of saying this is, “It’s not the size of your tool, but how you use it that counts.”

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