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Say a Little Less, Mean a Little More

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

Understatement. Sometimes, it’s just the thing.

At certain points in your novel, in an effort to be explicit, you might be creating barriers of words that keep the reader from fully entering the story. They shouldn’t have to sift through the rubble of your exploded verbiage to find what it’s really about. Understatement invites your reader’s active participation by leaving small gaps into which the she can insert understanding from the vast warehouse of images in her own mind.

The authors we’ll look at today do an amazing job of guiding the reader toward a specific experience and then standing out of his way while he digests it.

Understated emotional peaks

Ron McLarty uses this mad skill to wonderful effect in his novel, The Memory of Running, right from the get-go. In the opening scenes, Smithy Ide is saying a poignant good-bye to his parents, who were in a horrific car crash on the way home from the family’s annual vacation and then whisked to different hospitals.

Smithy is a 43-year-old supervisor at a toy factory who makes sure the arms on SEAL action figures are assembled palms in. He describes himself as “fat and drunk and cigarette-stained.” This does nothing to endear me to him. I have a rough history with alcoholics, hate cigarettes, and was born to a fat-obsessed mother.

But then McLarty lays in an important line of subtext: “I would have given my car to anyone, right there, if I could have been sober.”

Bloody hell. Got me.

We’re only on page 19 when Smithy stands beside his dying mother. He listens to her little breaths. Puffs, really. He pushes her thin hair onto the pillow with his fingers, and says:


That’s it.

McLarty doesn’t make the mistake of telling the reader his character feels helpless. He doesn’t have to—that one generic word oozes with helplessness that the reader can’t help but feel.

Note that while McLarty uses a generic word, he has not relied upon a generic feeling. Many openings at deathbeds and funerals fail to move readers because the writer assumes that all readers will feel sad at such occasions. Not so. Death is often a tragedy but it can also be a relief, a payback, a disappointment, a reward, or a simple closing of a door. McLarty succeeds here because he uses every blessed one of those first 19 pages to create within Smithy a mountain of character, so when he balances that one word “there’ on the summit, we’ll know that Smithy’s powerlessness extends to every aspect of his life.

If McLarty can pull this off in the first 19 pages, you can certainly use the entirety of accumulating subtext in your novel to say volumes in its one final image.

Understated endings

“Rosebud,” anyone?

The mystery posed by a dying newspaper magnate’s last spoken word became the driving force behind Orson Welles’ entire classic film, Citizen Kane. An understated ending can both satisfactorily address a story question yet continue to resonate in the reader’s mind as she tries to resolve all that went unsaid.

It’s scary, I know. To allow the reader to hold the heft of your entire novel in her hands with one, final image is the epitome of authorial trust. (Whether or not you have pulled that off, in my opinion, is a great use for advance readers.) But when done well, it just might make your reader start re-reading the moment she hits that last line.

In the novel The Thirteenth Tale, here’s how author Diane Setterfield concludes the story of the reclusive author, Vida Winter, and her hand-picked biographer, our narrator, Margaret. Trust did not come easily between these characters, but what Miss Winter ultimately reveals about her life story has softened Margaret toward the eccentric woman and helped her learn things about herself. Her time invested in Miss Winter’s home has, in many ways, become her world.

This line opens the final chapter before the denouement:

Miss Winter died and the snow kept falling.

So much is hidden within the spaces of this simple, elegant sentence.

The chapter continues. Unable to leave the author’s home due to the storm, Margaret takes a couple of days to finish writing up her notes but eventually, with nothing else to distract her, she gives in to grief that has accumulated over a lifetime. The last paragraph of this two-page chapter features allows secondary characters—the household servants—to take the lead, and in so doing, says much about how our hearts eventually heal:

Judith tucked a shawl around me, then started peeling potatoes for dinner. She and Maurice and the doctor made the occasional comment—what we could have for supper, whether the snow was lighter now, how long it would be before the telephone line was restored—and in making them, took it upon themselves to start the laborious process of cranking up life again after death had stopped us all in its tracks.

Little by little the comments melded together and became a conversation.

I listened to their voices and, after a time, joined in.

Go ahead, try it at home

Give understatement a shot, with this caveat: To underwrite in the first draft is often to under-know. Give yourself the chance to mix up the great big batch of words from which the story will be carved. Get to know the characters and how they feel. Holding yourself back to worry about making room for the reader could harm your progress. Effective understatement is often a process of “taking things out,” a self-editing technique best reserved for later drafts.

Is there a novel whose emotional peak or final image resonated with you due to its understatement? Please share in the comments!

About Kathryn Craft [1]

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [2] since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.