UNDERSTATEMENT – from ‘Dear Writer Revisited’ 


One of the most useful and powerful devices for the fiction writer is understatement. You tell the reader less so that the reader knows more. Instead of having everything spelt out, the reader is given, in a very careful way, just enough information for the imagination to go to work. From understatement the reader can derive great pleasure and satisfaction.

In popular fiction, and in romantic fiction, for instance, understatement is rarely used. This kind of fiction is often an exercise in overstatement. I will give you an example of overstatement from a romantic novel, and then two examples of understatement. All three pieces of writing are meant to give the reader an image of a man and a woman embracing. The images in the second and third “literary” examples are achieved only in the mind of the reader, whereas in the first one the romantic writer explains things graphically for the reader. Many readers love this kind of writing. How you do things depends on what effect you are aiming for. I generally prefer understatement myself.


“He advanced towards her with a purposeful expression, and she backed away, laughing, trying without success to ward him off with her hands. He caught her to him and kissed her, bending her dramatically over his arm like a twenties film heroine, and exploring her lips unmercifully until she could do nothing but wind her arms around his neck and kiss him back.”

—Daphne Clair


“And by the harbour, in the midst of the wagons and barrels, at every street corner, the citizens opened their eyes wide in amazement at the spectacle, so extraordinary in a provincial town, of a carriage with drawn blinds, continually reappearing, sealed tighter than a tomb and being buffeted about like a ship at sea. Once, in the middle of the day, when they were right out in the country and the sun was beating down at its fiercest on the old silver-plated carriage-lamps, an ungloved hand stole out beneath the little yellow canvas blinds and tossed away some scraps of paper, which were carried off on the wind and landed like white butterflies in a field of red clover in full bloom. At about six o’clock the cab drew up in a side-street in the Beauvoisine quarter, and a woman got out; she walked away with her veil lowered, and without a backward glance.”

—Gustave Flaubert

“In town, the lights were going on, and we were sitting on the bank on the other side of the river, and we were full of what they call love, that rough discovering and seeking of each other, that sharp taste of one another—you know, love.”

—Italo Calvino

Of the Flaubert quotation from ‘Madame Bovary’ I think it’s fair to say that once you have read it, you will never forget it. The imagery is so vivid and sexual, and your imagination is given the chance to see what is going on inside the carriage without your being told about who did what to whom.

Take a scene from your work, and rewrite it in two ways, first using overstatement and then understatement. You will see how dramatically the use of understatement can affect your work. You could try showing the two versions to your potential readers to see how each version is received. Don’t be surprised if people seem to prefer the overstated version. Reading understatement requires the reader to do more work than reading overstatement. It depends on which kind of readers you are looking for, but it also depends on what kind of stories you want to write, and what kind of stories you enjoy reading most yourself.

This is an extract from ‘Dear Writer Revisited’ published 2014 by Spineless Wonders


  1. Love this Carmel, because it makes clear one of the main distinctions between “escapist” writing and “literary” writing (not that you can’t escape into literary writing!) As you probably would guess, I prefer understatement too. It is far more likely elicit a reaction from me than writing that I can see is trying too obviously to make me feel. But as you say it is all about what people like to read, which, I’d say, is related to why they read – do they want an easy escape or to make their brain hurt a bit! Of course, sometimes a writer can make the brain hurt so much you give up, but that’s the risk both reader and writer take, isn’t it?


    • Maybe ‘escapist’ stuff can hurt the brain in a bad way. I think good literary writing (whatever that is, or whatever a reader thinks it is) is writing that nourishes the spirit (whatever that means etc).


      • Haha, Carmel. I’m incline to agree with all you say, here. BTW my readerly broad, loose definition of literary writing is writing that doesn’t follow a formula, and which uses language that isn’t clichéd or predictable. It’s the sort of writing that “hurts” the brain in a good way, in a way that does touch the spirit. Somehow I feel it’s the relationship between mind and spirit that is important in the writing that I like.


  2. I sometimes retreat into lala land and think that the whole thing is magic and alchemy anyway – that there are conventions and rules, but that there is a mysterious element that can never be defined. This idea is not helpful for students – who, in the end, must discover the whole business for themselves, albeit with some guidance.
    I am currently reading with great pleasure ‘The Library’ by Stuart Kells. On page 33 there is an account of the (late) Great Library of Alexandria where, it is supposed, above the bookshelves were inscribed the words: ‘The place of the cure of the soul’. (One sad thing about this book, The Library, is that it lacks an index.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think you are right – as soon as you try to put it in words, it slips through the fingers.

      I read about Stuart Kells’ book today and thought it sounded worth reading. But no index, that makes me cross in the sort of book I imagine it to be.


      • It absolutely should have an index. I make notes as I read – and I really love the book. My notes eventually constitute a sort of personal index for my own purposes. It would also benefit hugely from having illustrations – but I suppose that is asking too much. There is always google.


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