Friday, December 28, 2018

Ignore this tip: Don't waste words

Don’t waste words!

I’ve seen this writing tip thrown around as if anything but minimalist sentence structure and short words is the equivalent of purple prose.

I’m setting poetry and short stories and non-fiction aside, because they’re a different breed. In novel writing, I think it’s okay to linger sometimes.

I’m not talking only about description. I tend to skim lengthy descriptions just like you probably do. An effective description of, say, a location, is done by taking into account two things: the perspective of the character experiencing it (what they notice depends on who they are), and the focus on extraordinary details. A bus station has seats, restrooms, a ticket counter, and buses. Everyone knows this, so you don’t need to describe them unless there’s something unusual about either those items or the character experiencing them. For example, my main character Wynter grew up on an isolated commune and has never been to a bus station before. So, for her, the vending machine is unusual and also incomprehensible—a “big, brightly lit cupboard” full of locked-up snacks she’s never seen or tasted.

So, when is it okay to waste words?

Scenes should ideally serve one (two is better) of these functions:
  1. move the plot forward
  2. illuminate character (such as personality or character arc)
  3. add flavor or background
For those of us prone to being a little verbose, that’s actually fine as long as those “wasted words” fulfill at least one of these functions. If those words are also interesting or funny or poignant, there’s less chance the reader will skip over them. Wasted dialogue (not small talk, which is harder to write well but not always evil) is my favorite vice because it’s a chance to fulfill (2) and (3) even if it’s not strictly fulfilling (1), plus it breaks up chunky blocks of text that readers may skim.

Here are a couple of examples. In the first eldest brother Caleb is taking a forest hike with his girlfriend Bea, a single mother, and wants to ask her a favor when the moment is right. On the way to doing that, they’re walking from A to B.
Caleb fell into silence and let Bea talk. Jilly had recently developed a fascination for animal noises and a dislike for wearing socks, and had just learned to say “cookie”, which was somehow causing Bea’s mother to overfeed her cookies.
Let me just state this is completely irrelevant to the plot. The reader doesn’t need to know about Jilly’s language development (never mentioned again) or how her grandmother (another unimportant character) spoils her. In that sense, these are wasted words. The only reason this paragraph exists is for that word “somehow”. We’re in Caleb’s point of view. He’s 24 years old and not only do toddlers baffle him, their grandmothers’ illogical behavior does too. So the point here is not to tell us about Jilly, but about Caleb—in relation to Bea, and to toddlers and grandmothers more generally.

That’s a really short paragraph with no dialogue that I hope readers wouldn’t skip because it shows Caleb’s thought processes in a roundabout way.

Here’s some totally irrelevant dialogue between Jesse and Wynter. When Wynter shows up on his doorstep, Jesse decides to show her the world in this order—grocery shopping, Xbox, email set-up. (Yes, I use examples from my own writing all the time—aside from the obvious, I’m a really really lazy person.)
“What are those X’s and O’s?”
   “Those are hugs and kisses. How can you not know that?” He said it kindly, but she felt her face heating at yet another reminder of how little she knew. “That’s just what kids put at the end of messages sometimes, to their friends or their mom or… y’know, their sisters, I guess, although I never emailed a sister before so I’m not sure.”
   “Would you put those in an email to Indio or Caleb?”
   “God, no. That would be weird. Indio and me are good buddies, though. We text, more than email.” Jesse pulled out his phone and clicked Indio’s name from the message app. He held the screen in front of her face and she read aloud from a grey bubble at the bottom of the screen.
   “Stop polluting my playlist with your crappy EDM. I’d rather fuck a frog than listen to another—
   Jesse snatched back his phone. “Whoa, okay, that’s not appropriate. Sorry.” He gave her a sheepish look. “We share playlists from a music streaming site. At the club last night I heard some awesome beats—he’s not so impressed. Anyway, we’ll get you a phone and then we can talk or text any time.”
   “But we live in the same house.”
So, I confess, there’s nothing here that couldn’t be cut. It doesn’t move the plot forward or provide any relevant info we don’t learn elsewhere. The reason it’s there is pure “flavor”—to show the developing and existing relationships within the family. And another confession: I do this quite a lot because I like hearing my characters interact. So to make these “wasted words” count for something, I always try to ensure the interactions serve one of the three purposes that a scene should serve, even though they’re not scenes as such.

Next time you’re tempted to cut cut! CUT!! during the editing stage, I suggest taking another look at those unnecessary words and think about what they add to the characters or flavor of your work. Can they be tweaked to serve a purpose? They may not move the plot forward, but maybe they don’t have to.

Are you naturally verbose in your writing, or straight-up plot oriented? Do you enjoy watching your characters mess about for the sake of it? Let me know what you think!

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