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Write Tight: 3 Pieces of Advice I Wish I’d Known Earlier

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Last month I was on a panel at a writer’s conference, and one of the questions was “What piece of writing advice do you wish you’d known earlier?”

My answer had mostly to do with the need to write tight. Early in my writing career, I had trouble writing succinctly—particularly in knowing what to include and what to leave out. And lately as I’ve been reading entries for a contest I’m helping to judge, I’ve noticed that many young writers have a similar struggle and often add more than is necessary.

So, here are three pieces of advice I wish I’d known earlier about writing tight:

1. Make Every Scene Count:

Before I write a scene, I envision a stage and my characters upon it. Who would want to go to a play and watch the actors meander around the stage talking to themselves or reflecting on problems while eating, getting ready, shopping, driving in the car, talking on the phone, etc.? Or thinking about their past (aka backstory)? Big yawn.

Rather than the mundane and ordinary, our audience wants to be entertained by the unfolding story. Put the characters on stage and have them jump right into the action. Start the conflict. Get the story moving. EACH scene needs to be critically important to the plot and story development or it needs to see the lovely black end of the delete button.

If we eliminate static scenes, then readers will come to expect that every scene in our book adds suspense or value to the plot, even when we slow the pace. The more succinct and necessary we make each scene, the fewer parts readers will be able to skim or skip.

2. Make Every Character Count:

Before I add a new character (particularly a minor one), once again I envision a stage. I check to see if any of the other characters who are already on stage can do the job first.

First, I don’t want my stage becoming cluttered with too many characters. Our audience will have a hard time keeping them all straight even if we do our best to give them unique tags and names. So when I need a minor character, I try to use one I’ve already brought onto the stage earlier (rather than add a completely new character).

Second, I try not to name all of my minor characters unless I need to do so for clarity’s sake. Even those I strategically place on the stage don’t get names. And if they get a “speaking part,” it’s often in a generic sense like: One of the other farmers said, “Go on you big chicken. Ask her to dance.”

The point is if we write tight with our characters, we increase the potential for them becoming more memorable versus getting lost on the crowded stage.

3. Cut the Flowery Descriptions:

When I write descriptions, I look at the stage and decide what props I need and why. I don’t wax eloquent about the weather or the clothing or the people passing by—just because I want to. I make myself have a reason for adding in those details.

Of course, as a historical writer, one of my important jobs is to bring to life a bygone era. Since readers haven’t been to the 1830’s Oregon Trail (the setting for The Doctor’s Lady), I have to find ways to create the aura of that setting. Even though I add in historical details to bring the era to life, I still try to do so with extreme care.

Sometimes I add setting details to create a certain mood. Other times, I describe things that play a role in the plot. The point is that I try to use description as strategically as possible. And, I try to weave it in seamlessly so that readers see the description through the eyes of the point of view character as the action unfolds.

Anytime we use flowery prose for the sake of sounding beautiful, that usually means we need to make another date with our delete key.

Have you ever had trouble deciding what to include and what to leave out of your story? In what area do you have the most trouble with writing tight?

36 comments:

  1. This is a really cool idea...as a Broadway (Chicago version) junkie, I love the idea of visualizing my story taking place on a stage in order to determine what would be interesting to the audience. Very helpful!

    As far as cluttering with characters, I think I have the opposite problem: not enough of them! It's especially hard for me to write a scene with more than two people. I end up having one of them get a phone call or something else to take them away, because I find writing dialogue with a group to be next to impossible. (Maybe someday you'll write a post with tips on how to best incorporate minor characters? :D)

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  2. Hi Barb, Yes, writing dialogue with multiple characters is a bit like juggling. We can't let one of the characters just drop from the conversation, as if suddenly they were whisked from the room by magic fairies. :-) Instead, we do need to find ways to keep them in the conversation or at the very least continue give the feeling that others are on the stage. The minor characters I actually assign names to, I try to give distinct tags, so that whenever they show up, my readers will be able to remember them easier as I weave them into the scene.

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  3. Timely post for me, Jody. I'm finally at that point in my experience that this makes so much sense. I use to feel too close to the story to be able to decide which scenes need to go after a first draft, but now I'm able to trash a scene before it gets past sentence two. This is one of those topics that really fits into the logic of "practice makes perfect, or at least practice makes close-to-perfect."

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  4. I found the idea of visualizing a stage or movie very helpful, just like Barb. :D

    I don't have Barb's trouble of having too few characters. I have trouble with too little description, and for my genres I am pulling the reader into very unfamiliar surroundings!

    I write science fiction and fantasy, and it is not uncommon for the MC in those genres to have a tight gang around them, somewhere between 4 and 6. Every now and then I need to sit this group down for a conversation. I end up focusing on one or two characters too much and leaving out others. I think that's me trying to spread a conversation between too many characters when it only needs to be between a few. :P

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  5. It took me years to tighten up my writing, but I agree it's essential. I still need to go through the finished manuscript several times to cut back all the dead wood, and no doubt I'm not even seeing all of it. Having an objective pair of eyes makes all the difference. It was a gifted critique partner who, years ago, taught me how to see just how much of my overwritten prose could be pruned. She helped me take a 320,000 word historical down to a size 126,000. Bless her forever and ever amen!

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  6. This is great advice for me since I'm now editing my first novel. I like the idea of making every scene and character count. I try to make every scene move the action forward in some way, but I'll be sure to examine that as I go through my story with a fine-toothed comb.

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  7. Great post. Less is always more. I keep thinking of Hemingway, and how he challenged other writers with his simple but strong prose.

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  8. I tend to start off with too much detail, and then take a red pen to it. It's much easier to write long and remove bits afterwards.

    I do try to envision scenes and what they're going to add to the plot though. If I discover later they do nothing, they get cut.

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  9. First of all, I forgot to mention yesterday that I think your site is beautiful. Second of all, I love the idea of picturing the story unfolding on a stage. That makes sense. I tend to put a lot of characters in my stories, but I'm getting better at tightening everything up as a whole. It takes a lot of practice. We can't all be Stephen King. :)

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  10. Great advice Jody - even for nonfiction writers like me. I'm learning to stop using five words when one excellent one will do.

    From book to chapter to paragraph to sentence, I'm slashing away. Sometimes, I cut some words that I love and paste them into a Word doc to save for possible future use. Makes the surgery a little more palatable.

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  11. Excellent post. Very helpful. Thanks, Jody.

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  12. I like the stage analogy, Jody. I really like the concept of trying to use a minor character that already exists before adding another one.

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  13. I don't write fiction, but I do read a lot of fiction books. One thing I don't like to read is a book that has too many "Flowery Descriptions." When I read, I usually skip over most of the descriptions any way. A book that has too many usually loses my interest. It's good to describe the setting and the features of the characters. But to go into too much detail makes the book drag on.

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  14. Great tips- Thanks! I shall consider this 'stage' concept.


    Happy Holidays!

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  15. Jody, these are great tips!

    I love your stage idea - I usually visualize the scene, too, but I put myself in the role of the POV character and watch it play out that way. What does he or she see, feel, do? But thinking of it as a scene on a stage would put me in the reader's mind...I can see where both ways would be valuable!

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  16. Great counsel here, Jody, but that's nothing new. :-)

    I cringe when I think of my first manuscript. I was so into description and bringing the historical setting to life that I went overboard BIG time. Don't tell anyone, but I spent half a page or more describing one dress--and it wasn't even the dress the heroine was wearing. Now you know why that manuscript is hidden in the dark corners of my hard drive. LOL

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  17. I like to visually "see" my characters, as well, like a movie playing in my head. My problem with my WIP is I have cut it down so much that it's only 46,000 words. Now I need to find ways to add scenes and fill it out, but I don't want just fluff. I guess that's why it's called a Work In Progress.

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  18. As many of you have alluded, editing is a great time to chop out the unnecessary stuff! Somehow the extra creeps into our novels even when we're trying hard NOT to let it in. At least it does for me! I try to write tight, but I always find more I can cut during the editing.

    And April, thank you for the very sweet words about my website!

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  19. Great way of looking at it. I'm at the editing stage now, and I love your how you relate it all to a stage production. A very helpful way to help me chop and edit. Thanks!

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  20. Excellent advice with very practical application! Thanks, Jody! I'm definitely going to put this into action. :)

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  21. I love dialogue. I brainstorm scenes in dialogue and my first drafts are often all dialogue -- or at least mostly dialogue.
    So one of my biggest challenges as a writer is getting my characters to talk less and do more. Dialogue is great ... both internal monologue and the "real stuff," but still ... there comes a time to make my characters hush up and do something!

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  22. This is wonderful advice, Heather. I think tight writing applies to most other writing too - blog posts, freelancing, etc. This principle was something that was emphasized in the courses I took from the Institute of Children's Literature. I think that it is probably the best and most universal advice they could have given me.

    Thanks so much for this breakdown. This will help greatly with my WIP!

    Happy weekend,
    Karen :)

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  23. Great advice, Jody! I've found that having a concrete goal for my characters, both for the overall story and in each scene, helps weed out the unnecessary scenes.

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  24. As I wrote in my blog post about The Doctor's Lady, this is one of the many skills of yours that I admired. You jumped ahead to scenes that mattered, and as a reader, I really appreciated that. As a writer, I'm learning!

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  25. I've never thought of my characters as being on a stage...I like it! I have issues with my dialogue, adding Oh's, Right's, and Listen's, and I usually end up cutting all the extraneous bits and pointless reactions. Great, great post!

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  26. Oh, I am so with Barb, who thinks having more than two people being active in a scene is HARD. It took me a while to figure out how to keep all of the characters active, and even now, the scenes with multiple characters take me a while. But like all things in writing, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Um, mostly. :)

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  27. Thanks Jody! So important for me right now as I finish up my novel rough draft and trying to get the word count in without thinking about how much extra, extra I've got to cut. ;-) Sigh. :)

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  28. Excellent advice, Jody, but I do mourn the loss of good description. In today's world of shrinking attention spans it seems unfashionable to have long descriptive passages, but I do love a good setting.

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  29. Coleen, I read a lot of classics with my children--the latest was The Wind in the Willows. And my kids have a hard time listening to the lengths of description. But as I tell them, before the days of YouTube, Internet, TV, DVD's, etc., people couldn't see the world the same way we do today. So the authors were at liberty to describe things in order to bring them to life for their readers. And of course, too, the times were slower and reading out loud was a huge form of entertainment. So you're right in saying it is unfashionable for long descriptions today. The modern reader has different needs!

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  30. I have a hard time not including too many "stage directions"--as in, "She ran her hands through her hair with a sigh, then crossed the room and rested her hands on the table." Some of that is good, but I tend to include too much because I'm picturing the scene in my head. I guess I'll just have to wait until someone wants me to write a screenplay! :)

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  31. I'm late to the party, but this is great advice. Thanks, Jody

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  32. Este blog é uma representação exata de competências. Eu gosto da sua recomendação. Um grande conceito que reflete os pensamentos do escritor. Consultoria RH

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  33. Hi Jody,

    Merry Christmas and may I wish you a Happy New Year in 2012.

    I wish you and your family good health, hope, solidarity, trust and love.

    With every best wish,
    Ronnie

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  34. Great advice. I really enjoy reading this blog. Keep it up.

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  35. Thank you for the very great advice. Very true. :)

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