Withholding in Writing
I recently read the book My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout and was struck by how brilliant Strout is at withholding information. The book is filled with white space–physical and metaphorical. So much is left unsaid which makes the novel all the richer and deeper. I highly recommend it.
Despite the adage “show, don’t tell,” writing is an act of telling. Writers use words to tell stories, to share experiences, to convey emotion and making meaning. But a common error of young writers is that they can oftentimes tell too much. They underestimate the intelligence of their readers and explain everything, sometimes ad nauseam. It makes for tedious, boring prose.
More experienced writers understand that not telling is as important as telling. Withholding information creates mystery and tension. It gives the reader a chance to imagine, which is a necessary part of reading, a part of it that makes it a rich, multilayered experience. It also mimics real life since so much of human interaction is about what’s not said, and its relationship to what is.