Reveal Just Enough Detail

This post is approximately 600 words. And if you’re not familiar with these sculptures, there is artistic nudity when you follow the links. 

prisoner-atlasTwenty years ago – almost to the day – I was at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Italy, the museum that famously displays Michelangelo’s “David“. And while I was in awe of this 17-foot masterpiece, it was not his familiar form that stayed with me after I left.

It was this piece, known as “The Atlas”, one of Michelangelo’s four Prisoners done in the non-finito, or unfinished, style. To me, these seemed most representative of his philosophy about sculpture: that every block already contained the figure, he just had to chisel away the unnecessary marble. Some claim these works are the best representation of Michelangelo’s sculpting prowess, though this might not be immediately evident compared to the seeming perfection of David.

But you’re not here for an art history lesson, so let’s segue into the point for this post.

I left the museum with an understanding that Michelangelo revealed only enough of the figure for it to come to life (though whether a tour guide said it or whether I was brilliantly struck with inspiration, I’ll never know. Feel free to guess.). That thought has stayed with me for twenty years and it’s a philosophy that I’ve applied to my writing.

I love to write. I’m often verbose (this is one of the reasons I start each post with a message about word count – it keeps me in check!). If I could indulgently describe a scene or a character in a thousand lush words, I would. But I think that does the reader a disservice. I want to provide just enough detail to bring the story to life in your mind. If I write too much, well, I feel like I’m taking away too much of your imagination, which I think reduces a reader’s enjoyment of a book.

I’m not alone. In his book “On Writing“, Stephen King says something similar about his characters:

…if I describe [my complete mental picture], it freezes out yours, and I lose a little bit of the bond of understanding I want to forge between us. Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

As an example, let me describe a mountain range at the edge of sight: its jagged outline and snowy peaks; the evergreen treeline that marks the highest point at which foliage can grow; or the treacherous recesses that are but dark wrinkles upon an ancient gray face. I could go on and on, depicting the clouds that obscured the tallest peaks or the shadows they cast upon the insignificant hills below, but there comes a point where your interest fades. You get it. There are mountains in the background. They are imposing and old and magnificent. You don’t need me to zoom in until we’re so close we can see the shiny flecks of mica in the granite.

Rockies 1

So here’s the deal: you bring your imagination and I’ll bring the right number of words, and we’ll meet in the lands of Empyrelia, each of us with our own vision of the world around us. Work for you?

A picture might be a thousand words, but you don’t need a thousand words to form a picture in the reader’s mind. Sometimes less is more. The successful writer finds the balance.


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© Michael Wallevand, May 2016