The Art of Omission

The Art of Omission and the World of Warcraft

Ernest Hemingway, in his own special way, put forth the idea of Omission and described it as an Iceberg. Saying that if an author really knew his subject then he needed to only write about the parts of the iceberg exposed. The rest is inherently implied and with that wealth of unwritten material, the story is far stronger.

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.
—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon

Clearly, in the above paragraph, Mr. Hemingway was not applying the Art.

Still, it is no secret that the designers of the World of Warcraft are big fans of Ernest Hemingway. The in-game character, Hemet Nesingwary, is a big game hunter with the mixed-up letters from Ernest Hemingway. Other examples are The Old Gnome and the Sea achievement and quests like The Green Hills of Stranglethorn (Green Hills of Africa) and The Snows of Northrend (The Snows of Kilimanjaro).

I would put forth that one of the great strengths of World of Warcraft design is based on the Art of Omission. Most games are supremely linear; you start the game and are pointed to the End Boss. The World of Warcraft suggests that arc but does not force it. This allows you, as a player, to imply your own adventure and to “fill in the gaps” as you explore a very wide range of game play.

This is brilliant and a strong reason that WoW is still cooking along for over ten years. By allowing us our own “beneath the surface iceberg” the game is richer for us players. We know who we are in the game: powerful stuff.

It is a bit of a shame that Mr. Hemingway gets all of the credit. Choreographers have long known that it is the stillness that gets the focus in a dance. Musicians know that it is the silence that is most powerful.

Here is a description (From The New Yorker magazine article) on Julianne Moore acting in a scene:
As she swallows, she stares at the lens, almost without moving. Her ability to do nothing unleashes something active in the audience, her profound emptiness takes on the force of a body blow.

There is a bastardization of the Art of Omission in the world of writing. Currently you can read the New Yorker article by John McPhee on editing. It is a fine article and I’d not want to cast too much light on it: it’s a good read.

John McPhee says:
“The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed … It’s as if you were removing freight cars here and there in order to shorten a train — or pruning bits and pieces of a plant for reasons of aesthetics or plant pathology, not to mention size.”

The problem I have with invoking the Art of Omission and claiming that that is your motivation for editing is hokum, baloney and misguided ego. I don’t buy it all. The problem with many writers is that they love to write and don’t know when to stop. They love sitting at a keyboard and clacking away.

This is especially true when they don’t have “something to say” and end up writing about editing.

When writers don’t have a point to make, they will get enamored with their writing (and bless them) need to be edited heavily. This type of writing is masturbatory. Like masturbation, it should be kept private or on occasion shared with a good friend. It should never, never be public.

When writers get excessive, they should take a page from Mr. Hemingway and learn some thrift. Best of all, they should have something to say — this will keep them from rambling on and find weight in each and every world on the page.


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