Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Writers’ Sins Continued: Writing A Little Too Much

     That ancient, terrible maxim:

Show, Don’t Tell!

     ...applies to more than just a preference for depicting your characters in action – speaking and doing things – over allowing your narrator to talk about them. It also applies to smaller choices you make as you write. Some of them are so small that you might never think about them. Yet they matter. Some of them matter more than their “size” might suggest.

1. The Adverbial Attribution.

     The notion that editors hate adverbs isn’t entirely correct. Adverbs, after all, are one of the eight parts of speech: fundamental tools whose use should not be debarred to the writer, provided they carry their weight. However, certain uses of adverbs will undercut the power of your prose...or worse, will reveal that you haven’t been working at it.

     Here’s an example I cited in The Storyteller’s Art:

     “You can't talk to me like that,” she said angrily.

     “Angrily” – ? Really? Not lovingly or boredly or thoughtfully? What an incredible surprise.

     The adverb in that example is not only an unnecessary word; it's an insult to the reader's intelligence. Why is it there?

     Because the writer knew his line of dialogue was cliched and weak, that's why. Because he preferred to hack it with a tonal attribution rather than give his character and his story enough thought to come up with something strong enough to carry itself. In other words, because he's a lazy bum.

     Lazy bum writers don't attract a lot of readers. The ones they do get are less than penetrating.

     Dare I suggest that you’d rather that your reader not get the idea that you’re a lazy bum?

     If the dialogue is sufficiently strong, or is mated to description or action that renders it an adequate expression of the speaker’s emotional state, the adverb is unnecessary – and the last thing you should want in your manuscript is unnecessary verbiage.

     There are other unwise uses of the adverb. Here’s one that comes to mind: “He caressed her lovingly.” There may be other ways for a man to caress a woman, but it’s better to allow context and the already-established relationship between the characters to express the sentiment attributed here by the word “lovingly.”

     Make every word carry weight. Adverbs, while useful, don’t always do so. Worse, they can actually bog down your storytelling. Keep an eye on ‘em.

2. A Few Words Too Many.

     Many writers write a few words too many when concision would better serve their purposes. In a way, the “angrily” and “lovingly” examples above constitute cases of that sort, but there are others that can slip past one’s own critical eye out of habituation. Here’s a case:

     He nodded his head in agreement.

     In agreement, you say? My word. I’m from Planet Pharsad, where people nod their heads to order a beer. You Earthlings are terribly strange!

     Besides that, there’s no need to write “He nodded his head,” as if nodding one’s right elbow or left foot were plausible alternatives. Simply write “He nodded.” Unless you’re writing for your readership on Planet Pharsad, that is.

     Concise prose is power prose. It has punch that unnecessary verbiage would drain from it. George Orwell was fierce about omitting needless words. So was Professor Will Strunk, he of the famous duo of Strunk and White. They knew something a lot of contemporary writers have forgotten...or perhaps have never learned.

3. Explaining A Character’s Actions.

     Here we grapple with “Show, Don’t Tell!” in its 200-proof strength. A character’s decisions and actions should flow directly from his motivational substructure:

  • His convictions and beliefs,
  • His desires and goals,
  • His inhibitions and fears.

     That’s the essence of character construction. Before you depict a character’s decision or action, you must ask yourself, “Why is he about to do this?” The reader might not yet know – indeed, the action might be intended to convey some attribute of the character to the reader – but you must know.

     After you’ve satisfied yourself that you know why your character is about to do whatever he’s about to do, there comes a second question: “Do I expect my reader to know that already, or am I in the process of characterizing?” Sometimes the answer matters quite a lot.

     Explaining what the reader should already know is a mistake I’ve made a few times. Here’s an example from Innocents:

     He took her gently by the shoulders, urged her to sit, and sat beside her.
     “I don’t live here,” he said, “or anywhere nearby. And I don’t know where I could take you near here that would be...good for you.”
     She said nothing.
     “A very smart man suggested that I bring you back to New York, where I live.” He grinned. “Not in a metal house, a regular one that doesn’t go anywhere. You could stay there with me while my friend and I find someone who can help us to help you. You know, figure out where you belong, whether you should be in school and what grade, things like that. Are you willing to do that? Come north to New York and stay with me while we figure all that stuff out?”
     She made no sound or movement as he spoke, merely sat with her hands in her lap and her eyes fixed on his. In the few seconds before she replied, Sokoloff began to fear that in his innocent desire to help, he might somehow lead her to her ultimate destruction.[1] Her response took him completely by surprise.[2]
     She rose from the daybed, turned smoothly to face him, dropped to her knees and bowed until her forehead touched the floor.
     “I am yours, my lord.”

     That passage has as its sole object the final five words of dialogue. The male character, Larry Sokoloff, is also the viewpoint character, whose thoughts we can “hear” as the passage progresses. That makes it arguably legitimate for the narrator to speak of his interior processes, as in the sentence supra-noted [1]. It constitutes character-definition material. So also does the surprise he experiences, supra-noted [2], at the female character’s [Fountain’s] response. However, one reader felt [1] was arguably unnecessary and [2] was absolutely unnecessary. “Sokoloff had already defended the female character from a gang of rapists,” he said. “Of course he would be afraid for her—and of course it would surprise him for her to prostrate herself before him!” After much pondering, I can see his point.

     At least I got those last five words in.

     Here’s a counter-example from the same novel. The female character being depicted here, Trish McAvoy, has just killed an unresisting Supporting Cast character. Larry Sokoloff, once again the viewpoint character, was appalled by it, and is in the throes of his reaction to it:

     “We’ve still got one thing to do.”
     “Yeah.” He pulled the remote from his jacket pocket and offered it to her. “Go ahead.”
     She frowned at him. “What’s the problem?”
     “You’re the hard one. Go ahead, do it.”
     “You killed an unarmed woman. I watched you do it. She was a victim too, Trish. I was trying to come up with a way to spare her life. You didn’t give me the chance.”
     Her face flamed red. “You’re damned right I didn’t,” she said. “She was a slaver. The price of her security was lifelong bondage for her pupils. She worked with a thug who looked like he outweighed you and me put together. Would you like to talk about what he did to drive her lessons home?”
     “There’s no mercy for that kind of scum, Lar. When I find them, they die. Armed or unarmed. Male or female. Standing, sitting, lying down, or on their knees pleading their little hearts out, they die. Period fucking dot.
     She took the remote from his hand and stabbed the action button. Even from more than a mile away, the dull whoosh as the thermite charges erupted into flame was faintly audible.
     “She convicted herself out of her own mouth,” she said. “Part of the reason I came with you was so I’d be there to do what I did, if you turned out to be too soft to do it. Don’t you ever get between me and one of them. Don’t you dare.” She tossed the remote onto the floor at her feet, folded her arms across her chest, and stared straight forward. “Now start the fucking truck and get us home.”
     He did as he was told.

     I hadn’t yet made Trish out to be the hardass she really was, so I allowed her to explain her own decision. But I stopped short of describing Sokoloff’s reaction; that would have been writing a little too much. The reader had already seen enough of him in enough contexts to know that while he was appalled, he was also unable to refute her ferocity. The last six words above said all that needed to be said.

     “Writing a little too much” isn’t always fatal to a tale, but it can irritate the reader. That’s something you don’t want to do. You don’t want him to think you regard him as a dunce. (You don’t want him to think you’re a dunce, either.) Concision – questioning the necessity of what you’ve just written, and revising or eliminating it when necessary – is a counter-agent to both hazards. Yes, it protracts the process, but the benefits are greater than a fledgling writer of fiction can imagine...before readers’ reactions come in, anyway.

1 comment:

Dystopic said...

I'm pretty sure my own writing is full of unnecessary words. The reminder to avoid this is appreciated.