The Power of Understatement in Fiction Writing

© Salim Photography/

© Salim Photography / via Flickr

Today’s guest post is excerpted from Dear Writer Revisited by Australian novelist Carmel Bird (@carmelbird).


“It is seldom advisable to tell all.”  

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White

One of the most useful and powerful devices for the fiction writer is understatement. You tell the reader less so that the reader knows more. Instead of having everything spelt out, the reader is given, in a very careful way, just enough information for the imagination to go to work. From understatement the reader can derive great pleasure and satisfaction.

In popular fiction, and in romantic fiction, for instance, understatement is rarely used. This kind of fiction is often an exercise in overstatement. I will give you an example of overstatement from a romantic novel, and then two examples of understatement. All three pieces of writing are meant to give the reader an image of a man and a woman embracing. The images in the second and third “literary” examples are achieved only in the mind of the reader, whereas in the first one the romantic writer explains things graphically for the reader. Many readers love this kind of writing. How you do things depends on what effect you are aiming for. I generally prefer understatement myself.

Overstatement

“He advanced towards her with a purposeful expression, and she backed away, laughing, trying without success to ward him off with her hands. He caught her to him and kissed her, bending her dramatically over his arm like a twenties film heroine, and exploring her lips unmercifully until she could do nothing but wind her arms around his neck and kiss him back.”

—Daphne Clair

Understatement

“And by the harbour, in the midst of the wagons and barrels, at every street corner, the citizens opened their eyes wide in amazement at the spectacle, so extraordinary in a provincial town, of a carriage with drawn blinds, continually reappearing, sealed tighter than a tomb and being buffeted about like a ship at sea. Once, in the middle of the day, when they were right out in the country and the sun was beating down at its fiercest on the old silver-plated carriage-lamps, an ungloved hand stole out beneath the little yellow canvas blinds and tossed away some scraps of paper, which were carried off on the wind and landed like white butterflies in a field of red clover in full bloom. At about six o’clock the cab drew up in a side-street in the Beauvoisine quarter, and a woman got out; she walked away with her veil lowered, and without a backward glance.”

—Gustave Flaubert

“In town, the lights were going on, and we were sitting on the bank on the other side of the river, and we were full of what they call love, that rough discovering and seeking of each other, that sharp taste of one another—you know, love.”

—Italo Calvino

Of the quotation from Madame Bovary, I think it is fair to say that once you have read it, you will never forget it. The imagery is so vivid and sexual, and your imagination is given the chance to see what is going on inside the carriage without your being told about who did what to whom.

Take a scene from your work, and rewrite it in two ways, first using overstatement and then understatement. You will see how dramatically the use of understatement can affect your work. You could try showing the two versions to your potential readers to see how each version is received. Don’t be surprised if people seem to prefer the overstated version. Reading understatement requires the reader to do more work than reading overstatement. It depends on which kind of readers you are looking for, but it also depends on what kind of stories you want to write, and what kind of stories you enjoy reading most yourself.


Dear Writer RevisitedIf you enjoyed this post, then I encourage you to check out Dear Writer Revisited by Carmel Bird. You can find the paperback on Amazon, and a digital edition available direct from the publisher.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice and tagged , , .
Carmel Bird

Carmel Bird

Carmel Bird is an Australian novelist. She lives in Central Victoria, having grown up in Tasmania. She has written nine literary novels and six collections of short fiction. She has also written three books on the art of writing, and has edited six anthologies of essays and stories. She has taught fiction writing at the Universities of Melbourne, Deakin, Latrobe, Monash, Swinburne and RMIT. Visit her website at CarmelBird.com

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14 Comments on "The Power of Understatement in Fiction Writing"

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Sophie Playle

Nice examples. Understatement certainly has more allure, more power, but I like the fact that you point out it’s a technique that works based on your intended style and readership.

Geraldine Nesbitt

Beautiful example of how less is more. I will certainly be going through my work and deciding where this technique would bring more power to the writing. There are places in my latest book that I know could be stronger.

Morgyn Star

Intriguing. Does a great example of ‘understating’ spring to mind in First POV? If so, please share.

Arliss Grove
Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen — the memoir of Karen Blixen, chronicling her time managing a coffee farm in Kenya in the years 1913-1931. I recommend watching the movie before reading the book, because it gives a more comprehensive overview of the actual events (whereas the book is more of a collection of memories in no chronological order — it is, after all, a memoir and not an autobiography). The book is very beautifully written, and Blixen often glosses over issues that she isn’t comfortable speaking much about — her affair, particularly the lover himself (who died very tragically… Read more »
Morgyn Star

Arliss, the beauty of the language, the engagement of the reader in an almost stream of consciousness interaction with the story, a noble aspiration even when writing so called non-literary. Thank you!

Morgyn Star

Intriguing. Does a similar example of First POV ‘understatement’ spring to mind? If so please share.

Paula Cappa
I agree with Sophie that the intended readership is key. I find that appealing to readers who prefer the understated prose is a small percentage of the reading masses out there these days. Carmel Bird’s post is quite inspiring and helpful. But writing in an understated way and still remaining clear to your reader about the action is a huge challenge and demands a unique writing skill and lots of practice. I write supernatural novels and short stories and when I run the stories past beta readers to get feedback, when I understate a scene, they don’t get it or… Read more »
Mary DeEditor

Ah, this explains it. I’m a ruined woman. I’ve tried to make myself write romance, at least be interested in romance, because that’s where the money is, right? But I was ruined at the impressionable age of 18, reading Flaubert and Tolstoy and the rest of that ruffian crowd.

Decades later, I still remember Emma’s carriage ride, and many, many other scenes from _Madame Bovary_.

Thank you, Carmel.

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Arliss Grove
I feel like this is a very interesting point, and definitely worth more discussion; however, I feel that the examples you chose weren’t comparable to one another. Madame Bovary, for one, is a Victorian morality tale, and so of course wouldn’t go into detail on this topic because it would’ve made the book more of a scandal than it already was. Calvino, who wrote from the 1950s to ’70s, was a modern-to-postmodern writer who frequented the realms of the abstract, so I’m not terribly surprised that his romantic description is vague and reliant upon the reader being acquainted with the… Read more »
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