Concise, Not Precise

As an author learns how to write, the impulse to provide pinpoint details becomes more pronounced. A confident person strides rather than walks. Not wanting to wake a partner, a wife takes care not only to tiptoe but tiptoe over the squeaky board at the top of the stairs. More exact observation by the author leads to the reader feeling more in-depth impressions from the fictional world being created.

That encouraging trend in writing skills needs to be balanced, however, by the dictum to entertain. In trying to locate a character fully, an author can waste the reader’s time. Let’s say Ellen is stopped by a policeman, who takes his regal time examining her license and registration. A description might go: “Ellen watched him out the side window of the car, wondering what was taking him so long.” Okay, that’s how she would do it. But then I wonder: how else would she watch him? The phrase “the side window of the car” isn’t needed at all. That leads to the next consideration: if she is going to watch something, it had better to be unique (aka entertaining). What details can you pick out of a routine traffic stop that makes the incident noteworthy?

The same false emphasis on precision leads to unneeded verbiage. After the cop leaves, Ellen is mad. The description of her driving away might be: “The tires of the car sped away down a narrow lane.” Again, I understand the logic: the tires connote squealing and the like. But it’s also childish: how else is the car to speed down the road? If you take “the tires of” out of the sentence, what is left? Should you be telling the reader about the car speeding away at all? I, for one, would rather know how Ellen feels about cops in general, or about her love of driving fast—or anything more attention-grabbing and fun.

Any description needs to perform a distinctive purpose. I don’t need to know that “Howard raised his phone to the side of his head.” Where else would you raise the phone to? I don’t have to know any of that information unless it provides insight into either Howard or what he is doing. If in raising the phone, Howard bangs himself on the underside of his ear, and he curses because he does that kind of stuff all the damned time, now I’m smiling. Yep, being a lummox is part of life. Unless the detail is telling, though, you are functioning merely as a video recorder. Make sure what you capture comes from an interesting vantage point.

Exercise: The easiest way to spot excess descriptions is to look for prepositions. In a sentence that uses “the tires of the car,” I first am alerted by the “of.” Look hard both at the noun the prepositional phrase describes and then at the object of the preposition. Are they distinctive? Or are they just piling a banal word on top of another banal word in an effort to somehow make the noun distinctive? The phrase “of the car” isn’t needed at all.

“Everything in excess is opposed to nature.”  —Hippocrates

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.