“More matter, with less art.” (Hamlet II.ii.95)

Some people are natural storytellers.  There are others, however, who can take an otherwise interesting experience and turn it into Purgatorial drudgery for the listener.  My mother is one of those people.  Like any good son, I love my mother, but I figured out at an early age that my mom has a tendency to ramble a bit.  Most of her stories do have a point, and given enough time, she may eventually get around to telling you what it is.  In the meantime, be prepared to listen for a very long time.

Looking back, I think I gained whatever editorial skills I possess from listening to my mother’s meandering conversations—a necessity for anyone in the house who hoped to retain some degree of sanity.  For my mom, it’s all about the blizzard of details she inserts into any story she tells.  A trip to the supermarket turns into an odyssey of roads taken or not taken, accidents avoided, bargains sought, prices compared, people encountered.  And interspersed throughout are digressions concerning dates and times and weather conditions and distant friends and coworkers and relatives that have nothing to do with the tale she’s recounting but somehow find their way into the stream of conscious narration that is my mother’s storytelling.  The trick for the listener is to sift through all those details and figure out which ones are truly essential and which, although they may be interesting in isolation, are not particularly vital to the story at hand.

Those of us who write are often guilty of the same garrulousness.  We take the root of an idea and we let it grow in whatever form or direction seems appropriate, and before long, we have pages filled with words.  This is good because instead of a blank page, we now have something we can actually work with.  The problem then becomes sorting through all those words and taking out the ones that are downright distracting or don’t really enhance the work as a whole.  This, of course, is the painful part.  We like our dazzling descriptions and snappy lines of dialogue that flesh out our intricately crafted plots and subplots and bring our host of characters to life.  Still, the question we must ask ourselves (and the question my mother never seems to ask) is this:  Are all those details absolutely necessary?  Would the story be better served, and the writing itself be made infinitely more interesting, if we stripped it down to the barest level possible and built our ideas around what remains?  Perhaps in the world of writing, it’s best to remember the old show business motto, “Always leave the audience wanting more.”      


About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.


  1. I agree! Less is more as they say.

  2. Eric Bahle says

    Or the more gruesome ‘murder your darlings’!