Tight Prose

One of the things new authors I know stumble on the most is writing tight prose. They often feel they need to make readers see things exactly as they are in their head, and this leads to overwriting. In their quest to make readers see what they see, they describe every little detail at length to try and create the “perfect image” in their readers’ heads.

This is a mistake.

Think about when you read a book written by a master. Their descriptions tend to be short but evocative. They don’t hang on all the details, either. They give you what you need in order to see the events, and then they move on. My favorite example of this comes from Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” where he describes a character as being “the size and shape of a refrigerator”. Those few words create an immediate picture in the mind. While that picture doesn’t have things like eye color, hair color, and clothing, it tells you everything you need to know about the character at that moment. Gaiman doesn’t waste words.

New writers (and even more experienced ones) need to remember that readers will picture things how they picture them. That’s half the fun of reading a book: picturing it in your head. How many times have you seen a movie made from a book and scoffed, “That’s not how it was in the book at all!” Well, that’s partially because Hollywood makes changes, but partially because we create grand and sweeping ideas of what things look like. The only way for a reader to do that is if the writer leaves them breathing room. Don’t try and force them to see exactly what you see unless it is important to the story.

Another problem with this habit is that readers tend to skip long descriptions. If you spend half a page describing the exact color and texture of your character’s hair chances are readers are going to see the first few words and skip the rest. You know you do it, too, so don’t even pretend otherwise. The truth is we all do it. Why? Because it’s boring! It doesn’t further the story, and we want to know what happens next.

So what do we do about it? Simple: don’t describe anything not relevant to the story. Is the main character’s eye color relevant to the story? No? Then leave it out because the reader won’t care. I don’t remember the eye color of a character in a book unless it’s unusual or different. For example, I remember the eye color of the Pernese dragons because it was part of the story and world – their mood-ring eyes were an important note. I don’t remember the color of F’lar or F’nor’s eyes. Or Lessa’s. Or Mennoly’s. I remember the dragons. Why? Because it’s important. Moreover, in real life how many people do you know whose eye color is something you really think about? Your spouse, probably, your kids. Maybe a few other people. (I remember my father and sisters’ because it’s the same as mine; I remember my mother’s because it’s different.) But unless someone’s eyes are a particularly important part of their character or are unique in some way… who cares what color they are? The same goes for hair color and style, clothing, or other details.

The only exception to this is for characterization. If there is something about the character that is told in their clothing or their hair style or their eyes then by all means, use it. I have a friend who wears only fine Italian shoes… even when he’s outside shoveling. I think the shoes look a little silly, but he won’t wear anything else. That’s an important thing about who he is as a person. I have another friend whose hair is a different color every time I see her. That also says something about her personality. Particularly since the colors are often things like “bubblegum pink” or “sunshine yellow”.

Finally, we come back to my old harp of avoiding adjectives and adverbs unless they are important or necessary. Most of the time they aren’t and can be replaced by a strong noun or verb. A good example of this is a friend and mentor of mine, Randall Andrews, who wrote in a recent story that a character’s breasts had gone “National Geographic”. The image is kind of offensive (as intended by the character who said it), it creates a specific image in the mind, and it’s one most of us can understand. It omits all the adjectives you could use to describe the character’s breasts and replaces them with a single, concrete description that lets me, the reader, picture in my head what’s going on there. Not that, in this case, I really wanted the image. That kind of evocative writing is what we should all be striving for.

Remember: Brevity is the soul of wit.


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