Monday Writing Motivation: The virtues of a limited palette

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog, Tips for Writers

A theme that has turned up time and again in these little essays is the virtues of restraint and limitation. I’m not sure whether this is not something that applies in life in general – I suspect it is! – but for the moment let’s just imagine that I’m talking specifically about creative writing.

Think for a moment about the choice we all face at the start of every story when we weigh the different points of view available to us.

We’re planning, let’s imagine, to write a story about a character who unexpectedly comes into a small but not insignificant inheritance.

We could tell this story in the first person. That would promote a close, not to say intimate connection between reader and character.

Or we could tell the story in the third person – but that, of course, is not the end of the matter. You could adopt third person omniscient on the one hand, or third person immersive (also called attached or limited).

Writing omnisciently, you, the author, would be free to dip in and out of any of your characters’ heads, you could allude to events lying in the future, you could comment on incidents of which your perspective character is completely unaware.

It’s not called the omniscient point of view for nothing: you have the liberty to do whatever the hell you like. Maybe you relish that freedom – but you have to remember that it comes at a cost.

Absolute freedom for the writer is precisely the problem. You would constantly be tempted to reveal too much to the reader, both about the plot and your characters’ motives. That excess of information will reduce tension, it will bleed suspense away, and it will render your story much less compelling.

Giving your reader just enough information at any given point in your story, but no more, is the key to a taut and suspenseful narrative. Restraint is a writer’s best friend. It will keep your reader on her toes, developing hypotheses about the slowly unfolding plot, trying to guess what might come next.

Monday Writing Motivation: The virtues of a limited palette

This was brought home to me during our recent writing retreat in Venice.

One of the writers with us is also a talented artist and had brought a wide array of oil paints in all the colours of the rainbow with which to capture the magic of the city. She spent a week in Venice before the retreat began living in an apartment not far from the palazzo in which we gather, indefatigably sketching gondolas, bridges and so on.

Then, in her apartment, she stretched canvas over small A4-sized wooden frames, and sought to capture those images in oil. She relished the challenge – and felt that her umpteen colours gave her a huge advantage in meeting it.

But, try as she might to catch the effect of the ever-shifting light on stone and wood and water, she found that the clear vision she had in her head was lost in the confusion of the colours she applied to the canvas.

And then one morning she reported a little breathlessly that the cleaning lady who put things to right in her apartment every day had inadvertently dumped all her oils in the garbage. By the time she noticed, they’d disappeared in the maw of a garbage disposal boat.

At first she was devastated – but then, realising that was just a waste of emotional energy, she picked herself up and tracked down a local paint shop. This time round, however, rather than replace the dozen or so tubes of colour she’d lost, she decided to restrict herself to just four.

And – I’m sure you’ve guessed where this story’s leading – she discovered that her painting of a gondola was at once simpler, more dramatic and altogether more striking than all of her previous attempts.

You couldn’t find a more pertinent example of the conviction that underlies this Monday Writing Motivation.

Happy writing,


P.S. Let me know whether you prefer the safety and discipline railings afford or the thrill of teetering on the edge of the abyss.

P.P.S. I will be taking a break now until early January, when I will make an announcement to which I hope you will respond with great enthusiasm. (That’s called a cliff-hanger.) Have an excellent holiday season!

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