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Letter to Students: Restraint

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.

Last week, we discussed restraint. I defined restraint as the ability of a writer to create the desired image, feeling, or impression in a reader's mind without directly describing it. I think this is an important part of literature; it invites the reader to become a part of the storytelling experience. Mystery novels are so fun because you can try to guess whodunnit as you read along, using the author's clues; but this principle is at work in far more fiction than we realize. When you guess a character's feelings without being told what they are, when you connect the dots between two scenes and understand how scary/pathetic/romantic/sad/joyous they are in combination, you are benefiting from the author's restraint.

Don't mistake this for restraining your imagination, however. Restraint doesn't mean holding back on what you want to convey; it means holding back on how you convey it, so the reader can be part of the process, instead of being spoon-fed everything you want them to imagine, think, or feel.

We played with two methods of restraint. One was choosing an unusual angle from which to describe something. The game we played used the example of senses; writers often default to describing what a scene looks like, but the other senses can be very evocative, so we practiced describing a set of scenes using only one sense at a time: scent, sound, touch, or taste. When you describe something from a less-obvious perspective, you give the reader the opportunity to fill in the details you leave out, while still experiencing a fresh take on a familiar setting.

I also compared this method to using a referent to describe another referent. My example was "Going to the beach feels like Halloween," something I said to my boyfriend last week. Given context (he knows me and how much I love Halloween), he knew exactly what feeling I was trying to convey, without me having to put it flatly. That process also invited him to consider how it felt, rather than passively receive a description of the feeling.

The second method of restraint we explored was strategic omission. This is more like the mystery novel example: giving readers enough clues to start guessing what it is you're leaving out, without directly saying it. To play with this idea, we each came up with a writing prompt, and then our neighbors challenged us by giving us an important detail/twist/surprise that the original writer had to indicate indirectly in their story, without directly describing it.

These are all concepts we can explore not only in our writing, but in our lives. As you talk about your day with friends, or allow your mind to wander during walks or your commute, list out alternative forms of description for common sights, or see if you can build suspense and participation in a story you're telling to friends by strategically omitting an important detail until the end. Are you at risk of turning into that weirdo who can never just say "The sky is blue," but is always saying stuff like "The sky is like the top bunk at Grandma's"? Yeah. But I never made any promises that this class would make you more normal.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here.

Image courtesy of www.freevintageillustrations.com

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