You could spend a life reading about how to write, but most of the time you’d be reading drivel that doesn’t really matter. I suppose that applies to any advice about anything. So the question is, “Of all the things you’ve read that offer advice, how do you know what to pay attention to?” There are a few ways to answer this question, but one of the simplest is to play a game. Imagine that it’s the only advice you’ll ever receive; how far can you go with it? Say it’s the only council you’ll ever heed. Will you go right with it, or wrong?
When I read John McPhee’s Writing by Omission, I evaluated it using that benchmark and it did well. A writer could take nothing but McPhee’s advice and still come out alright. Specifically, a writer could live and work by the following passage:
“And inevitably we have come to Ernest Hemingway and the tip of the iceberg—or, how to fashion critical theory from one of the world’s most venerable clichés. “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” The two sentences are from “Death in the Afternoon,” a nonfiction book (1932). They apply as readily to fiction. Hemingway sometimes called the concept the Theory of Omission. In 1958, in an “Art of Fiction” interview for The Paris Review, he said to George Plimpton, “Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg.” To illustrate, he said, “I’ve seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out. I’ve seen a school (or pod) of more than fifty sperm whales in that same stretch of water and once harpooned one nearly sixty feet in length and lost him. So I left that out. All the stories I know from the fishing village I leave out. But the knowledge is what makes the underwater part of the iceberg.”
McPhee is advocating, essentially, tweaking a fundamental tenet of story: show, don’t tell. Others are aligned with this position as well. For example, in The Art of Dramatic Writing Lajos Egri talks about character creation. He says that it’s not enough to have a character who is mean or kind, great or small. The pseudo-god of a fictional world—the author—must know why the character is that way. And to know why, he has to know everything.
First, he must know the character’s physiology; height, weight, skin colour, hair colour, complexion, beautiful or ugly, skinny, muscular or fat, graceful or awkward, their mannerisms, gestures, clothing and style of movement. Second, he must know the character’s sociological background. Where were they born? Where did they grow up? Were they wealthy? Poor? What was their family like, their mother, father, brothers, sisters, cousins? What was their school like? What about its pupils? And friends, what about friends? Many, none? What did they study, what didn’t they study, and what did they enjoy learning about? Did they participate in extra-curricular activities or other hobbies? Third, the author must know the character’s psychology. What do they fear and what do they desire? What do they need and what do they want? Are the two the same, or different? What is their philosophy and do they live by it, or try to and fail? What is their temperament, and their approach to the different facets of existence?
This may seem exhaustive, like terribly hard work. It is. That’s why no one does it. And that’s why only a minority are able to transport their readers to different dimensions, to different points in time and space.Think of George R.R. Martin. Tolkien. Rowling. Ursula le Guin. There are more, but the list of people able to create new worlds and compelling stories is minuscule compared to the population of humanity. It’s because individuals willing to ask and answer so many questions about something so unreal are profoundly rare, and border-line crazy.
Another example: I’ve recently started watching Critical Role, a series which follows a group of actors playing Dungeons & Dragons. The reason it’s so popular and so immersive is that the characters in play have origin stories. They’re all coming from somewhere and going somewhere. They all have different motives, different traits, different abilities. The smallest of details have been covered. This means that the characters—not the people playing them—can choose how to proceed.
I’m reminded of Steven Erikson’s A Tale of the Malazan Empire, a ten-book series based on years and years of notes and ideas. The reason Erikson’s world is so sturdy and strong is because there’s a foundation that remains unseen—he’s created a tremendous iceberg. He knows the history of his characters and the history of the world they romp about in, which means he can implement an event and watch how the world and its peoples respond. He doesn’t have to decide; the depth and clarity of the world he’s created provides an obvious answer as to how to proceed with the story. He doesn’t have to be clever, ingenious or coy. He can just do what feels right, and it will be right because his world and characters are multi-dimensional, capable of responding, making decisions and leading the way without the approval of the author.
I’ve said that McPhee, Hemingway, Egri and a few others believe in an altered version of show, don’t tell. This concept—typically concerned with avoiding dreary exposition, with developing character or plot via action rather than via narration or dialogue—changes. It transforms from show, don’t tell to know, don’t tell. That is the critical maxim for a writer. In fact, it’s the critical maxim for a creative of any stripe; know everything you possibly can, then leave it all out.