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Ursula K. Le Guin on the Subtle Art of Leaving Things Unsaid

science fiction painting
Image copyright Vincent Di Fate. Used with permission.

Ursula Le Guin’s writing is chock-full of craft, and she also doles out a fair measure of advice on how to improve your own writing in her book Steering the Craft. In it, she introduces the idea of crowding and leaping to describe portions of a story that are full of rich detail and others that move at a faster pace:

Tactically speaking, I’d say go ahead and crowd in the first draft—tell it all, blab, babble, put everything in. Then in revising consider what merely pads or repeats or slows or impedes your story, and cut it. Decide what counts, what tells, and cut and recombine till what’s left is what counts. Leap boldly.

The idea of “leaping” may not be ground-breaking. Afterall, preparing a draft for publication is often described as editing down. But you may wonder why should I exclude details? Shouldn’t a story be as full as possible with vivid descriptions? Keep in mind that you’re building a world not only on the page but also in the reader’s mind. Oftentimes, it’s better to evoke than to describe; half the fun of reading is filling in the gaps with imagination. Le Guin explains leaping in further detail:

What you leap over is what you leave out. And what you leave out is infinitely more than what you leave in. There’s got to be white space around the word, silence around the voice. Listing is not describing. Only the relevant belongs. Some say God is in the details; some say the Devil is in the details. Both are correct.

That is a top-notch tip, but, like most writing advice, it isn't overly specific and leaves you wondering great, but how does that look in practice? Of course, where an author crowds and what they leap is a matter of personal style. For instance, in her short stories and novellas, Le Guin tends to leap over dialogue and crowd in details of place. Why?

Her belief that she lacked a “real ear for dialogue” led her to spend her writing career coming up with innovative ways to shorten dialogue so that it weaves naturally through longer sections of narrative and description. She uses two of these dialogue-leaping techniques in her story “Old Music and the Slave Women.” In it, her protagonist Esdan ventures to a backwater planet as an envoy from a technologically advanced, but carefully aloof confederation of planets called the Ekumen. He finds himself thrust into the middle of a civil war. In the following passage, Esdan is questioned in captivity by the leader of one of the factions:

Long habit prevented Esdan from asking questions that would reveal the extent of his ignorance. Rayaye like most politicians loved his own voice, and as he talked Esdan tried to piece together a rough sketch of the current situation.

[...]

Esdan could only guess what had happened in the half year since. Rayaye talked of “our victories in the south” as if the Legitimate Army had been on the attack, pushing back into the Free State across the Devan River, south of the city. If so, if they had regained territory, why had the government pulled out of the city and dug in down at Bellen? Rayaye’s talk of victories might be translated to mean that the Army of the Liberation had been trying to cross the river in the south and the Legitimates had been successful in holding them off. If they were willing to call that a victory, had they finally given up the dream of reversing the revolution, retaking the whole country, and decided to cut their losses?

“A divided nation is not an option,” Rayaye said, squashing that hope. “You understand that, I think.”

Civil assent.

Rayaye poured out the last of the wine. “But peace is our goal. Our very strong and urgent goal. Our unhappy country has suffered enough.”

Definite assent.

“I know you to be a man of peace, Mr. Old Music. We know the Ekumen fosters harmony among and within its member states. Peace is what we all desire with all our hearts.”

Assent, plus faint indication of inquiry.

“As you know, the Government of Voe Deo has always had the power to end the insurrection. The means to end it quickly and completely.” No response but alert attention. “And I think you know that it is only our respect for the policies of the Ekumen, of which my nation is a member, that has prevented us from using that means.”

Absolutely no response or acknowledgment.

Here, Le Guin is leaping over an entire side of the conversation (Esdan’s), effectively turning the dialogue into a monologue, but readers don’t enjoy monologues that stretch for pages, so she adds placeholders to show that Esdan is still a participant in the conversation. Phrases like “civil assent” describe his response without rendering it on the page. This has the added benefit of underscoring Esdan’s lack of power in the scene. He is a captive, so it is fitting that we get the unabridged version of Rayaye’s comments and a synoptic version of Esdan’s.

This passage also uses the cut-up dialogue to build tension; there is a gap between Rayaye’s stated and actual intentions. Esdan (and the reader) know that when the politician says “peace,” he means “peace after annihilating the enemy.” And so, the monologue becomes increasingly monstrous.

When Esdan is rescued by the opposing faction, they too interrogate him:

“Sit down,” said the brown-haired general, Banarkamye—Read-bible, his name could be translated. “We have some questions to ask you.” Silent but civil assent. They asked how he had got out of the embassy, who his contacts with the Liberation had been, where he had been going, why he had tried to go, what happened during the kidnapping, who had brought him here, what they had asked him, what they had wanted from him. Having decided during the afternoon that candor would serve him best, he answered all the questions directly and briefly until the last one.

“I personally am on your side of this war,” he said, “but the Ekumen is necessarily neutral.”

Here, Le Guin uses a second technique to leap dialogue: she recounts the questions asked as a list, skipping to the important question at the end. We know the answers to the listed questions, so it would be tedious to hear Esdan answer them, but the final question gives us an important detail: despite his personal feelings, Esdan is holding firm to his mission of remaining neutral.

This story, “Old Music and the Slave Women,” is a part of the collection “Five Ways to Forgiveness,” in which you can find many varied examples of crowding and leaping. Using this lens while revising a story, can help you control the pacing of the plot and deepen the theme as Le Guin does above.

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