This is not the tale of how Tesco’s turned mild mannered English professors across the country into rampaging vandals. You are probably familiar with the oft ranted-about grammar decree that less should only refer to what are generally known as ‘mass nouns’, as in items which are referred to in a collective, uncountable lump, such as coffee or sugar. While fewer should be used when referring to ‘count nouns’ – not the guy from Sesame Street, rather items which usually come with an s on the end, those which can be counted, like coffee beans or sugar lumps.
My general feeling about those not so mild mannered, not so tenured professors can be found here, but the distinction itself, while not one I feel Tesco’s need to worry about, is interesting, in the sense that it allows me to define something that I’ve been struggling to articulate for a while. Every time in fact someone quotes that old adage – less is more.
I aspire to this..
One day I will find the right words and they will be simple. ~ Jack Kerouac
Because I believe in this..
Easy reading is damn hard writing. ~ Nathanial Hawthorne
Truly complex, deep, engaging and enjoyable writing seems simple. The skill makes it appear so. The Hollywood blockbuster, the out of nowhere bestseller, the page turner that launches the next King, those derided for their ‘formulaic, mindless simplicity’, are often the result of the greatest skill. Which might be why we actually see about one great film a decade. Okay, maybe that’s a little exaggerated… two a decade?
But the craft – beyond the idea – the craft comes down I believe to mastering a few techniques; one of which is – less is not more, fewer is.
Too many things – distinct, distinguishable things – will clutter, crowd, confuse. The resulting muddle might dazzle just enough to fool; initially. Adding more of your count nouns, more twists, more shocks, more explosions, rather than fill the screen, the large demands of the audience’s expectations, will have the seemingly perverse effect of diluting your vision. Their distinctiveness becomes the overriding factor, creating splits and pulling something which should be a cohesive whole to pieces.
In literary terms I tend to think of The Casual Vacancy, a book with so much going on that it lost its audience, would have lost more if it weren’t JK Rowling on the jacket. Pared down, with fewer characters, less ‘themes’, a distinct end goal, and this might have been a little British gem. Her strength, her clever plotting, was still there, but it was obscured and her appeal, her willingness to commit completely to her world and characters, became her Achilles heel beneath her need to prove herself.
This is one of the greatest dangers of the count noun philosophy. The fear that whatever we have it’s not enough. So we throw more in to the mix. Hoping somehow that something in there will appeal, but the effect is the opposite, rather than please everybody we please nobody.
Another example that always springs to mind is the Hunger Games. A huge success, yet for many of us it simply did not stand up to even the most rudimentary scrutiny. It seemed as though she threw so much in – every evil, every plot, every dystopian cliché, that the end result simply didn’t make sense. Why did the children in this oppressed world attend school until 18? Especially given the high mortality rate and the general belief that education is a means to thinking – no dictators end goal. What was the purpose of the Games? To control? Military presence in every district which we saw brutally enforced and certainly seemed to be striking fear, would surely be more effective. But then there was the frequently cited theme of entertainment dulling the masses – except in this case does watching your child being slaughtered dull anything? Or the oft repeated demonstration of what the Capitol does to provide for them? The only thing I can figure it does is take their children and slaughter them.
The Hunger Games was such a huge success, some might use it as a means to dismissing my concerns, but it sold 50 million to Harry Potters 450 million. How many fans might it have added if her vision had worked a little fewer elements in?
Bad as this might be, in truth, much of what we see suffers more from less than any other sin. Less is simplicity misunderstood. Less is potential unrealised. And it is what frustrates me as a reader and viewer more than anything.
Less has given rise to the minimal dialogue in most films – and that was the politest adjective I could come up with. Less has killed character. And humour. And colour..
Less is a void and we call it intelligence.
And despite all this gravelly greyness less actually kills realism. Because creating the illusion of depth on a flat two dimensional form like a screen, requires more. To create consequence, the sense of a wider world, when there is nothing but words on a page, needs more. More of the same. The right same. Which is where the distinction between less and fewer finally became useful to me. We want so many coffee beans we can’t count them. A handful of sand won’t create a beach. Not even the illusion of one.
Rather than simply eliminating everything (leaving us with nothing) minimalism is really a way to maximise our enjoyment of what we do have
True simplicity is always more than you think it is. The little line drawing, it isn’t a couple of lines, it’s fifty.. If you see three things going on, ten are in play. It’s how we layer the pieces, blur the lines of our elements so all you see is what we want you to see. I know I am watching a great film, reading a great book, when I can’t see the strings anymore.
More is Jayne being Jayne even when no one asked him:
‘didn’t we have an intricate plan on how they was going to be not here?’
More is knowing how far to push, when any other man might have held back:
‘she goes woolly you’re going to have to a put a bullet in her brain’
‘It’s crossed my mind.’
More is understanding how every tiny aspect of your world works, however peripheral it might seem: The Chinese curses woven seamlessly through, the slightly devolved grammar structure, the feather light shift to Zoe’s hand reaching for her gun – to protect? to stop? or simply a warrior’s instinct? River mouthing her own death sentence.
More is taking each of these and repeating, again, and again, making sure they are present in every chapter, every scene, every line, because more is about understanding the base element in play – character, tone, theme – and understanding how each can take seemingly different forms, in the hands of a skilled storyteller. The dialogue becomes the emotion, becomes the reaction, becomes the decision, becomes the action, becomes the word..
More is consistency, attention to detail. But more than that, more is the art of the weave. Too often we separate out our strands as storytellers – here’s a character, this is who they are, here’s a plot, this is what happens.. heres a world, this is what it looks like – but to create the story, you need to weave them back together. Each element needs to be constantly present, built up in tiny details that no one notices, because all they see is the overall effect.
Whenever you hear ‘the devil is in the details’ , remember that ‘revelation is in the overview’. Details need to add to your overall design or they will only distract.
I am unsure what causes the less effect. Is it arrogance? They simply assume their ideas are good enough and never put the time and effort into developing them? Or genuine laziness, if you can get away with it, why sweat your way through road testing it all? Or perhaps the very opposite of both of those, like the count noun philosophy, does it arise out of fear? Committing wholly to a vision, to your vision, takes confidence. It doesn’t just mean committing to the belief that what you are attempting is worth the effort, but it feels as though it asks us to reveal ourselves. Less is compromise, a wall built of ‘as it’s been done’s’, ‘as I’ve seen it’s’, ‘as I think they want it’s’, that we can hide behind.
But however safe it might feel less really is less, no matter how many explosions they might add. Art always asks more of us. When you think you are done, you’re about 2/3rds there. Most finish too early, hold back a little afraid to go all in, what about you?