Did the Edmund Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo, have an accent? What color was the dress Emma Bovary wore when she swallowed the vial of arsenic? When Van Helsing hunted Dracula, did he wear his brown boots or his black ones? Did Odysseus wax poetic upon the length of Circe’s hair before she turned his crew into swine? Was Lancelot born with blue eyes or brown?
You probably never thought to ask these questions because they aren’t that germane to the story or even that interesting to ponder. Some details of stories are important to note. For instance, it is a key plot point that Harry Potter bore a lightning-bolt-shaped-scar on his forehead. It is less important for us to know that Hermione has buckteeth and frizzy hair. It might be crucial to the fairytale Cinderella to mention that there is a slipper, but it is not pivotal to reveal that the shoe is made of glass. How can we know which things are necessary to include in our writing and which ones we should leave out?
This is a question, of course, of personal preference. There is no central rule that applies, and this article can only serve to illustrate one viewpoint, which is to champion the cause of minimalism. In the course of my career as an editor, I have seen many mistakes the authors make, and one that touches my heart most is when the frank earnestness of well-intentioned authors causes a mess of florid prose to pile up on the page. We often enter this craft because we have a love of words. Many of us have had a calling to write or have been writing stories since we were children. Some of us have vivid worlds and characters inside our heads that are fairly bursting out onto the page. It may seems counter-intuitive or even close to impossible to pull back on description. And why should we?
The answer is simple: when you include extraneous detail, you rob the reader of the experience of their own imagination. What color is the little mermaid’s hair? For those of you who have seen the popular cartoon, it is a memory that is now branded foremost in your mind. But in the original tale by Hans Christian Andersen, it merely says, by turns, “flowing” “long” “thick” “waving” and “beautiful.” Never, at any time, does he describe a color. This leaves you free to imagine a mermaid and her beautiful hair any way you see fit—until, of course, you watch a Disney version.
Why is this important? Because Mr. Andersen undoubtedly had an idea in his own mind about what constituted beauty. We might surmise that, as a person of Danish ancestry, he might find the standard of beauty to include traditional blondes with fine features. This is conjecture, of course, but whatever Mr. Andersen considered beautiful, he did not impose his own ideas into the story. As an author, he must have had an active imagination, and he must have had a firm idea in his head of what his little mermaid looked like, but by not imposing those ideas on us, the audience, we are each free to imagine her as a blonde, a brunette, a redhead, even Chinese or African. He gifted us a blank slate and said “beautiful”—this allows each of us to imagine her in our own mind. As standards of beauty change throughout the decades, the little mermaid stays fresh and relevant. Her hair color isn’t important. The author’s idea of beauty isn’t important. Each person’s unique vision remains a gift through each retelling.
Many authors want to fight for the right to hold onto their vision of their story. That is understandable, but is it more important than the right of each reader to discover the magic of their own imagination? If it is a crucial detail, then by all means, include that detail. But if you include a detail that is for your own purpose, just to communicate your own vision, you are robbing people of a reading experience for no purpose than your own ego. It is similar to watching the movie before reading the book—which do you prefer? Which makes a more lasting impact? Explaining details instead of allowing for imagination, even on a small scale, makes for one less bit of interest they will have in your story and your vision. The more you explain to someone, the less they are invested and the less they care. If they imagine for themselves, they will come to love your tale more. You will gain more in the end with restraint.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, said, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is something I urge every author to take to heart. It should be the guiding principle not of writing, but of editing. Trust yourself, but also trust your readers. They will thank you for it in the end, and you will see your fans multiply!