Freelance editor Steve Parolini, better known as noveldoctor, writes insightful posts on his web site, as well as some finely worded short stories. Steve has graciously allowed me to run the following post. Take it away, Steve.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. --Anton Chekhov
Words are a writer’s currency. But too many words – or the wrong ones – will devalue a written work faster than an oil spill devalues an oil company’s stock.
This isn’t news to you. You know all too well the struggle to find the right words to tell your story. (Put down the thesaurus. That’s not what I mean. Have you even been reading this blog?) And so you write. And write. And write some more. And you finally finish your first draft.
And yet when you go back to read what you’ve written, it just doesn’t “feel” right. It’s not like you’re missing any key ingredients. The characters are believable. The plot is moving along just fine. There’s plenty of lovely description to set the scene.
But something’s wrong.
Now, it could just be that your writing sucks. (This is where you look around the room to see who else I might be talking to, because surely it isn’t you. I mean, your crit partners loved your short story about the fruit fly that preferred vegetables. “It’s a work of literary genius,” “a powerful metaphor about love and loss,” “like Animal Farm, but with insects,” they told you. Well, their actual words were, “it didn’t make me want to vomit,” but that’s essentially the same thing, right?)
Or it could be that you’re simply saying too much.
There are lots of ways “too many words” can steal the power from a story. Here are the three most common that I run into:
I love the Chekhov quote at the top of this post. I haven’t found a better one to describe the difference between “telling” and “showing.” But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. You already know why showing is generally better than telling. So why, then, do you have an entire paragraph dedicated to telling us what the protagonist is anticipating immediately preceding paragraphs that so beautifully show us exactly what happens?
There’s nothing wrong with some internal thoughts here and there. Nor is there anything wrong with the occasional telling. But there’s rarely a need to have both the telling and the showing. I bet you can find at least a dozen places in your first draft where you do this. Yes, showing usually takes more words than telling (not always). But the showing words aren’t the problem. Trim the redundant telling. Your readers will thank you. (In their hearts.)
There are very few writers who can do detailed description well. I’m talking about the sort of detail that reveals every shadow and wrinkle on a bruised white rose lit by twilight, or the font (and foundry it came from) that graces the title page of the book buried beneath a pile of similarly dust-deviled tomes that the protagonist reaches for with paint-stained fingers (Sherwin-Williams Rookwood Amber). (See? I’m not one of those writers. I’m okay with that.)
But just because we don’t have that skill doesn’t mean we don’t attempt it. What happens, though, is we end up with wordy descriptions that tell us stuff we don’t really care to know (or need to know). For example, if you simply tell me that a bowling ball rolls off the top shelf and lands on your hero’s head, that paints a clear enough picture for me to see it happen. Do I need to know that it was a 15 pound red and black Brunswick Evil Siege bowling ball? Well, maybe I do. Does the specific brand/weight/color play into the story elsewhere? Or are you being intentionally over-descriptive because it makes the scene funnier? In those cases, fine. But otherwise? I’ll paint the bowling ball black (or green if I actually owned one of my own that happened to be green) and assume it’s heavy enough to do the necessary damage.
I know what you’re thinking. All those writing books tell you to be specific. Hell, I’ll tell you that right here, too. Be specific. But…learn when to leave the rest of the picture to the reader’s imagination. If it’s not critical to the story (or the writer’s voice) that the character uses a Rachael Ray blue porcelain 10-inch skillet to kill the spider, just let the character use a plain ol’ skillet.
I love this one. Dialogue is one of my favorite things to write (and edit). Let’s start here: Take a minute to listen to real-life dialogue. Now, imagine transcribing that verbatim. It doesn’t quite look right, does it. One reason for this is the fact that you can’t actually layer multiple conversations on top of each other. If two people are talking at the same time, you can say so in your novel, but you’ll still have to run their words one sentence after another because you can’t stamp them on top of each other. (Well, you could, but that would look like a printer error.) Because of this, if you include every actual spoken word, dialogue that only takes a moment to speak in real time can stretch on for pages when written. Think of your written dialogue as spoken dialogue that’s been edited not only for content, but also for clarity and rhythm.
Also, real conversation has lots of non-words and repeated-ad-nauseum words in it, things like ums and ers and likes and plenty of unintelligible grunts and groans. Put all of them on the page and your readers will wonder what sorts of drugs you abuse.
But I still haven’t gotten to the biggest wordiness problem with dialogue: hijacking the character to deliver information readers should get elsewhere. You’ll recognize this dialogue by the way your character suddenly appears to be a puppet for the plot rather than a real human being.
“Is the sword shaped like a cross with a sharp dagger end that’s dangling over your head making you nervous, Edward?”
“No, Jacob. But you should be scared because I’m baring my fangs right now and they’re really menacing because they’re sharp and I’m smiling at the same time which is ironic and therefore underscores my obvious lack of fear.”
Please. Don’t. Go. There.
Instead, establish the scene so we know Edward is standing under the cross with the sharp dagger end. Then all you have to write is this:
Edward looks up at the cross then back to Jacob. He smiles, then bares his fangs.
“Not even a little.”
I know, my example is over the top. I did that on purpose. But you get the idea. If you need to deliver information to the reader about something in a scene, only use dialogue if it’s the sort of information the character would organically include in the course of the conversation.
Well, that’s all the questionable wisdom I have for you today, friends. Now get back to that second draft and start chopping.
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