The Writing Room: Is Less More? Or Is More More?

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Which of the following paragraphs works better for you? Why?

“It was a letter from the lover who had left me heartbroken so many years ago. My heart thumped, my stomach sank, my breath stopped, and my hands shook as I opened it.”

“It was a letter from the lover who had left me heartbroken so many years ago. My hands shook as I opened it.”

My opinion: In the first version, too many physical reactions are going on all at once. The reader isn’t able to decide which bodily function to imagine herself into – the thumping heart, the roiling stomach, the airless lungs or the out-of-control hands. The reader will try on first one, then another, and another. The immediacy of the moment is lost in the confusion, and he or she will fall out of the dream the writer has spun.

So, I’d say, choose one gut wrenching physical reaction. That way, the reader’s focus – along with the protagonist’s – can stay with that portentous letter.

What do you think?

© 2009 Barbara Falconer Newhall



  1. I would say the former, actually. We _want_ a bit of confusion, vertigo, and linguistic overload when describing such a moment.

    The latter borders on cliche. It’s just too neat and easy.

    Anyway, that’s my purely subjective take. Gotta love the English language…

    • OK. True. “Trembling hands” is pretty cliched. But what if I’d been able to come up with a single terrific physical description?… Still, I like your idea of inducing overload in the reader.

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