The Fullness of Omission

Grant Faulkner

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 156.

The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder.
—John McPhee

Wringing language dry, I force excess from early drafts. This might mean leaving something bare, just the skeleton of elements. Or it might mean the sound of dripping, the sense of something lightening, trailing off, expressing, weeping.
—Carol Guess

I think writing itself is, from the start, distillation. When I write, I’m trying to distill how I need to say a thing down to the fewest and most necessary words.
—Carl Phillips

How much of a story can be left out?

Writer Deb Olin Unferth says that flash fiction—defined as a narrative of less than 1,000 words—forces the writer to ask not about what to add, but about what to subtract. “The short makes us consider such questions as: What is the essential element of ‘story’? How much can the author leave out and still create a moving, complete narrative? If I remove all back story, all exposition, all proper nouns, all dialogue—or if I write a story that consists only of dialogue—in what way is it still a story?”

In my writing workshops, I often heard (and gave) the critique, “I need to know more about _____.” More characterization, more background, more detail. But I rarely heard feedback on what to cut. Subtraction can be more difficult than addition, which anyone who has tried to declutter a house or clean out a closet Marie Kondo-style knows. Editing a story can feel as counterintuitive as pruning a tree. It can seem harmful to cut a branch, to remove what a tree has grown and alter the natural shape it wants to take. But pruning is necessary for both the health and aesthetic appeal of a tree: Proper trimming encourages strong growth, increases flower and fruit production, and removes damaged limbs—all of which make a tree more beautiful.

The same goes for pruning the “bush” of a story. An intimate act, the process of pruning brings a vinedresser closer to the tree. You have to notice the flow of a tree’s shape, its contours, its arches, the way it reaches up to the sky. You have to feel its wood, decide what is healthy or unhealthy. A good pruner inhabits the tree, sensing its spirit, following its energy. A writer does something similar. In looking for what to prune, you become more attuned to a story’s contours. You feel the story in ways you didn’t before.

Subtraction is perhaps the most challenging thing for a writer to do. But the ability to remove things so that their removal creates a better narrative “divides those who can write from those who can really write,” said David Mamet. “Chekhov removed the plot. Pinter, elaborating, removed the history, the narration; Beckett, the characterization. We hear it anyway. Omission is a form of creation” (italics mine). You’re not just cutting words and sentences; you’re pruning the story, deciding things like how sentimental you want the language to be or what pitch the main character’s emotions should reside in. What concrete details or information can you omit, hinting rather than explicating? What if you cut a sentence? Or a paragraph? Or an entire scene? Or the last two paragraphs?

There might be no better way to learn how to shape a story than to write in the confined space of flash fiction. I didn’t truly know how to work with omission until my early attempts at writing 100-word stories. My first drafts came in at 150 words or so, and I didn’t initially see any places to trim. As I kept trying to reduce those stories to exactly 100 words, though, I learned that a good 100-word piece strikes a precise balance between what’s left out and what’s included. The rigidness of the 100-word-story form put pressure on me to “mind the gaps,” as I like to put it—the gaps between words, sentences, paragraphs, and around a story itself. I practiced the art of omission, and in those spaces I discovered that wisps and whispers are as integral to good storytelling as hard information about a character’s surroundings or personal history.

A miniature story is a drama taken from its larger context, pruned to suggest a bigger world. Flash attunes the writer to the subterranean, the implied, the unsaid, the unseen. The world in flash fiction is always a little bit haunted by what’s left out. As Lu Chi said, “Things move into shadows and they vanish; things return in the shape of an echo.”

Exercise: Building a Story through Omission  

Our initial impulse as writers is to want to give context. To tell where we are, how we got here, what we’re feeling. Writing context is easy; the hard part is not to tell things. And to tell things by not telling them. This is a skill that takes a lot of practice. How can you provide just enough clarity and just enough ambiguity? Ambiguity is an essential aspect of the human experience, after all, and omission is the key craft technique to nurture it.

Here are three exercises that rely on different types of omission:

1. Write a story that consists of only a list. For successful examples of this form, read “Girlheart Cake with Glitter Frosting” by Leesa Cross-Smith, “Orange” by Neil Gaiman, or “To Do” by Jennifer Egan.

2. Write a story only through dialogue, using Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” as an example.

3. Take a story you’ve written of any length and give yourself the challenge to shorten it by 25 percent. Just for fun, see what you can trim, how you can fill the empty spaces with suggestion. Then ask yourself: Did your story gain through subtraction? If so, what did it gain?

Adapted from The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story, published this month by the University of New Mexico Press.

Grant Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and cofounder of 100 Word Story. He is the author of The Art of Brevity: Crafting the Very Short Story (University of New Mexico Press, 2023), All the Comfort Sin Can Provide (Black Lawrence Press, 2021), Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo (Chronicle Books, 2017), and Fissures: One Hundred 100-Word Stories (Press 53, 2015). He is also an editor of Nothing Short Of: Selected Tales from 100 Word Story (Outpost19, 2019). Faulkner’s stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, the Southwest Review, and Tin House, among other publications, and have been anthologized in collections such as New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton, 2018) and The Best Small Fictions 2016 (Braddock Avenue Books, 2017). His essays on creativity have been published on Literary Hub and in the New York Times, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Writer, and Writer’s Digest. Find Grant online on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Listen to his podcast, Write-minded, and subscribe to his newsletter, Intimations: A Writers Discourse.

Art: Annie Spratt