(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“Distill the important from the immaterial.” William Zinsser

The writing process, properly conducted, is a process of selection.” William Sloane

“Everything must have relevance.” Virginia Woolf

“Select, Contemplate, Render.” Henry James

“Half of the art of the novel is leaving-out—what you don’t say, or explain, or make clear.” John Fowles

“He’ll simply select those details that he’d most enjoy finding in a story by someone else—but whichever details he chooses, he commits himself to exploring those details for all significant implications.” John Gardner

“In short, the ‘musts’ and ‘must nots’ of effectual novel-writing entail embarkation, by the author, upon something far wider, deeper and longer than what, in print, in statement, he will eventually present. He will accumulate, in the course of his work, a mass of what is to him reality, with all the time the knowledge that must of it must remain, ultimately, extraneous. Extraneous to what? His aesthetic purpose.” Elizabeth Bowen

“His eventual book is, he intends, to be wieldy, shapely and unencumbered: if statements are to make their expected point, he dare not clog the imagination of the reader with too much of them, or distract the mind of the reader by too many. As to the solution, nothing offers a rule but trained instinct or the immediate finding. The test of what is to be said, told, written (or, to remain in writing), is, its connection with what has been said before, its relevance to aesthetic purpose and, not least, its power to make known, by suggestion or evocation of something further, what needs to be known without being told. From the unsaid, or from what does not remain in writing, comes a great part of the potency of the novel.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Experience, innate sense of his craft and a critical estimate of the work of others combine to teach the author what may be most eloquent, sometimes, is the excluded word—or phrase, or paragraph, or it may be chapter. He learns that elimination may serve expression. He comes to see how far the unstated builds up the content.” Elizabeth Bowen

“Art is selectivity. You cannot re-create every minute detail about anything, neither about an event nor about a person; therefore, that which you choose to include, or to omit, is significant—and you have to watch carefully the implications of what you say or omit.” Ayn Rand

“Della waving, Wilson ‘leaning over the wheel, steering with both hands.’ The image of Wilson, though not extraordinary, is specific and vivid; we recognize that we’re dealing with a careful author, one worth our trust. We see more than that Wilson leans over the wheel and steers with both hands: we see, for some reason, the expression on his face, something about his age; we know, without asking ourselves how we know, that he’s wearing a hat. (Hints of his nearsightedness, nervousness, age, and culture leads us to unconscious generalization.) In other words, by selecting the right detail, the writer subtly suggests others; the telling details tells us more than it says.” John Gardner

“It is from the kind of world the writer creates, from the kind of character and detail he invests it with, that a reader can find the intellectual meaning of a book. Once this is found, however, it cannot be drained off and used as a substitute for the book. As the late John Peale Bishop said: ‘You can’t say Cezanne painted apples and a tablecloth and have said what Cezanne painted.’ The novelist makes his statement by selection, and if he is any good, he selects every word for a reason, every detail for a reason, every incident for a reason, and arranges them in a certain time-sequence for a reason. He demonstrates something that cannot possibly be demonstrated any other way than with a whole novel.” Flannery O’Connor

“All perception is selective. We are not cameras; in any given situation, no one sees everything. We see that which interests us, that which our values require us to focus on.” Ayn Rand

“Listing is not describing. Only the relevant belongs.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“No amount of intellectual study can determine for the writer what details he should include. If the description is to be effective, he must choose his boards, straw, pigeon manure, and ropes, the rhythms of his sentences, his angle of vision, by feeling and intuition.” John Gardner

“As the part, significantly chosen, reveals the whole, a word or detail may be enough to exhibit a character or convey a situation.” Harry Levin

“Now of course this is something that some people learn only to abuse. This is one reason that strict naturalism is a dead end in fiction. In a strictly naturalistic work the detail is there because it is natural to life, not because it is natural to the work. In a work of art we can be extremely literal, without being in the least naturalistic. Art is selective, and its truthfulness is the truthfulness of the essential that creates movement.” Flannery O’Connor

“It is all very well, saying one will write notes, but writing is a very difficult art. That is one has always to select: and I am too sleepy and hence merely run sand through my fingers. Writing is not in the least an easy art. Thinking what to write, it seems easy; but the thought evaporates, runs hither and thither.” Virginia Woolf

“A literal transcript of life is plainly impossible.” Percy Lubbock

“His hand [Tolstoy’s] is plunged into the scene, he lifts out of it great fragments, right and left, ragged masses of life torn from their setting; he selects. And upon these trophies he sets to work with the full force of his imagination; he detects their significance, he disengages and throws aside whatever is accidental and meaningless; he re-makes them in conditions that are never known in life, conditions in which a thing is free to grow according to its own law, expressing itself unhindered; he liberates and completes.” Percy Lubbock

“The new world that is laid before him is the world of art, life liberated from the tangle of cross-purposes, saved from arbitrary distortion.” Percy Lubbock

“These conditions in which Emma finds herself will have been chosen by the author because they appeared to throw light on her. . . . He seemed to have lit on this particular town simply because it seemed to explain and expound her better than another.” Percy Lubbock

“The longer I go on the surer I feel that the novel has nothing to do with the film. They’re two very different art forms, and there are dozens of better sources for movies than novels. . . . There are hundreds of things a novel can do that cinema can never do. The cinema can’t describe the past very accurately, it can’t digress, above all it can’t exclude. This is the extraordinary thing in the cinema—you’ve got to have a certain chair, certain clothes, a certain décor. In a novel you can leave all that out. All you give is a bit of dialogue. It’s this negative thing that cinema makers never realize. You don’t have to ‘set up’ the whole screen. The delight of writing novels is what you can leave out on each page, in each sentence. The novel is an astounding freedom to choose. It will last just as long as artists want to be free to choose. I think that will be a very long time. As long as man.” John Fowles

“It’s very important to know what you’re leaving out in a novel. I don’t think this is taught in creative writing. It’s what a novelist doesn’t say that is almost as important as what he does say.” John Fowles

“One of the greatest arts of the novel is omission—leaving it to the reader’s imagination to do the work.” John Fowles

“What I find hard is selecting, from the thousands of different dramatic permutations and combinations, with the infinity of alternatives they involve, a definite and striking situation that won’t seem arbitrary or forced.” George Sand.

“Inexperienced writers, when told to give facts, often give far more than are necessary, because they lack discrimination between the important and the trivial.” S.I. Hayakawa

“The number of possible scenes is infinite, of course, but the writer needs to know two things in order to select the ones best suited to his purpose. These two things have to be found out, and they are so often mishandled by unsuccessful writers that every editor gets a kind of second sight about them. The instant he is sure the writer has failed to meet these two requirements, he will reject the manuscript. First, the author has to know what his book is about. Maybe the reader doesn’t need to realize this overtly, but he has to feel he is finding out. . . . The writer must know also what happens in his book. If he does he is past the second hurdle. No piece of fiction can survive the dullness of nothing happening. There can be no end to a thing that never started.” William Sloane

“The fiction writer must select his scenes with the utmost care because any work of fiction is an act of enormous compression and condensation. No novel is ever ‘true to life.’ No story either. Its truths and its effects are those of seeming, not of fact—if fact is ever ascertainable. The writer is, if you like, rationed as to words and pages with which to put this semblance of reality into dramatic form.” William Sloane

“Fiction writers are limited as to words. A novelist generally has between 75,000 and 150,000 words in all within which to give the reader a gamut of experience that would, if he were to try to tell it all in detail, require millions.” William Sloane

“The overwhelmingly obvious fact about what a writer does when he sets down a story is that he selects. On what basis? Clearly, selection has to be made on the basis of appropriateness, but that still leaves a vast lumberyard. Perhaps, too, selection is influenced by the author’s ability to control his material. Mostly, though, the criterion is probably something like ‘function.’ The fiction writer chooses what will ‘work’ for him, what will advance his work in progress. He chooses against the book he is trying to write, the feeling he is trying to convey. It’s not the critical elements of which the book is composed, but its content, its deepest theme, the whole thing in potential that exists in him. From one word he chooses the next word, and from one sentence to the next sentence, and from scene to scene. And sometimes he chooses without pause and sometimes he has to sit and think a long time.” William Sloane

“The . . . writer selects from the totality of his knowledge and his intention, as they reside in his mind, those elements that contribute most to his communication with the reader.” William Sloane

“For me, good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first ones that come to mind.” Stephen King

“You should remember (and your reading will prove it over and over again should you begin to doubt) that it’s as easy to overdescribe as to underdescribe. Probably easier.” Stephen King

“When it comes to scene-setting and all sorts of description, a meal is as good as a feast.” Stephen King

“Fondness for material you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to gather isn’t a good enough reason to include it if it’s not central to the story you’ve chosen to tell. Self-discipline bordering on masochism is required. The only consolation for the loss of so much material is that it isn’t totally lost; it remains in your writing as an intangible that the reader can sense.” William Zinsser

“The idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes. Say that the moment is a combination of thought; sensation; the voice of the sea. Waste, deadness, comes from the inclusion of things that don’t belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional. Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry—by which I mean saturated? Is that not my grudge against novelists? that they select nothing? The poets succeeding by simplifying: practically everything is left out.” Virginia Woolf