The Writing Life

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Writing 101: Economy

Economic writing is not money talk, but economy in the sense that, to use a cliché: less is more.

Economy, in any writing, is essential. Economy of words and of scenes. This isn't to say that stories can't be long. Some of the greatest pieces of literature the world has seen have been quite long. Yet those novels also used economy. It's about choices, you see. Choosing your scenes, and your words. Being conscious of habits and working toward curbing the bad ones. Being aware that first choices aren't always best choices.

SCENES

With every scene, ask yourself:

1. Does this scene add anything?

The scene needs to give the reader something new, some information they didn't have before. The scene could drive the plot forward, add to the suspense, strengthen characterizations, fill in background -- it could add anything, as long as it is necessary to the story. The scene is NOT helping if it is repeating what has gone before, is a big tangent, tells us nothing new or doesn't belong to the rest of the story. Yeah, it may be wonderful stuff, but if it doesn't aid the tale you're telling, if it takes the focus away from what's happening simply because you thought of something cool in the middle of writing your opus, then cut it. You can always use it some other time, in some other story.

This even applies if you're writing a sex scene or a mushy scene or some other standard "But they're all alike!" scene. Don't let it be like any others! Don't write a sex scene, some chat, then write the characters having sex again in the exact same way they just did. If you're going to write another sex scene, make sure it adds something new to the story. It has to tell us something we didn't learn in the last sex scene.

2. Does this scene accomplish its goal?

Whatever it is your scene is supposed to be adding, ask yourself: did it succeed? Did it move the plot forward, add to the characterizations or fill in necessary information? Or did you get off track? Lose sight of your goal? If so, go back and rework the scene so that it does what it must do. Meandering storytelling, indulgent prose -- these things can frustrate a reader. Stay on track. You can indulge yourself all you want within the confines of the story you're telling. Truthfully, good storytelling isn't about seeing how often you can indulge yourself. It's about telling a story to the best of your ability.

3. Does the scene begin and/or end in the right spot?

Sometimes, what we write when we first begin a scene isn't necessarily where that scene should begin.

Let's say you have Mary napping in the grass. A bee wakes her up, buzzing near her ear. She shoos it away and begins to think about the problem she's facing. Mentally, she goes through the angles. Debbie shows up, and Mary tells her what she's just been thinking and they discuss it.

Okay. Now look at your scene and think about what you've done in it. Chances are, the meat of the scene is the conversation. Everything that drives the plot forward is there. In this example, there's no new information about plot or character in the napping or the thinking. So why is it there? Cut it. If you need some reference to her napping, then one quick 'did you manage to sleep' question from Debbie would do the trick. Two lines of dialogue replacing a whole chunk of scene describing a snooze. Let's face it: describing a nap isn't riveting fiction.

If the nap is the point of the scene -- perhaps Mary hasn't slept in days -- then that's fine. But in that case, it plays a vital role. That's the question you need to ask yourself: What does this portion of the scene accomplish? If the answer isn't readily apparent, you probably need to edit.

REDUNDANCY

Redundancy is another trap. Like seeing the same word 3 times in a single sentence, redundancy of scenes is just as bad. If you have a huge 'Trevor just saved a town from a wildfire' scene, don't let Gail tell the story of it to a room full of people a scene or two later -- in vivid detail. Cut away. Have her start it or have her finish it or have someone say "she's in there telling the story" but DON'T make the reader wade through a retelling of a scene they just read. The same thing with the scene above: don't have Trevor think through all his strategies and then repeat everything he just thought to Gail. Start with the conversation, and you won't have that problem.

The same thing applies to ending a scene. Don't keep going after your scene has had its say. Heck, I've read whole stories that end at the halfway point, but the author apparently didn't realize the story was over, so it kept going for another 100 pages. I remember one series of published novels that started off brilliantly. I couldn't wait for this author's next book. She was writing a series and each succeeding book was worse than the last. She lost sight of how to tell a story and became far more interested in physical descriptions of the land, and on imparting her research (they were extremely well researched). One book was an entire novel that should have been cut. It added nothing at all to the overall story she had been telling. A whole novel!

Economy. Say it once and make sure what you're saying is new, fresh, and necessary.

WORDS

This goes for economy of words, as well. Most people are aware that repeating words too often is a no-no. But how do you judge if you've overused a word? Obviously, you can say "the" more than once, even in the same sentence. Yet other words would stick out. Rarity is one test. The more unusual a word, the less you want to overuse it. Pretty common sense.

HABIT WORDS

Often, writers will get hooked on certain words and overuse them through habit. This is lazy writing (that probably sounds harsh, but it's important enough to make a strong point. There are a lot of things that fall into the category of lazy writing, and overuse of a word or phrase is a big one). If you suspect that you're overusing a word, do a search for that word in your word processing program [most WP programs have a "replace" feature. Just type in the word, or its root. For example, if you think you've overused "gentle", type in "gentl" so that you'll also catch "gently" and other forms. Then replace it with the exact same word or root. You should get a count of how many times you've used the word]. Compare the number of uses to the number of pages. To use our example, words like "gentle" shouldn't have a high number. Maybe once every 10-20 pages or so. Why? If overused, most words lose their impact. Adjectives are especially prone to this. I just checked the story I'm writing and in 123 pages, I've used some form of gentle 5 times. Roughly every 25 pages. I checked a few other words and there are one or two that I'm going to scan for.

When you scan, you do a 'find' and check each use, making sure that it's the right word. Sometimes, the same word has more than one meaning, and if the uses are spread over two or more meanings, then it's okay to use it more often than those words with a single meaning.

I'm guessing that right now, some of you are thinking, "You've got to be kidding! That's so anal." Remember, you do this when you notice or suspect that a word is overused. Not for every single word in the story! I'm also mentioning this because it might break a bad habit, or make you more aware of a possible problem. It's up to you to decide if there's any value in what I'm saying.

IMMEDIATE OVERUSE

Another problem, and many people are aware of this, is overusing a word in a short space. Repeating it in the same sentence or paragraph. These really stick out.

Most people know about this word trap, as it's fairly obvious. But there is a potential problem inherent in the solution to it! In order to avoid using the same word, writers sometimes reach deep into their thesauruses to find an alternative. And that can lead to some wacky synonyms. "Her fingers closed on the doorknob, the digits gripping tightly, her phalanges tensed and sweating. She felt the round metal handle begin to turn, and her organs of touch gripped it tighter." Lord have mercy, but that's some fine writin'! No, you're not going to fall into that trap. Unless you can come up with a good, solid, unintrusive synonym, don't keep searching for another way to say "finger", search for a way to reword your sentence. This may sound rather obvious, but you'd be surprised how many times people (including me) will sweat and fret over finding that workable synonym, instead of realizing that a simple rewording will solve the problem.

REDUNDANT PHRASES

The obvious repetitive errors are easy enough to understand, but there are subtler errors that add up to trouble. One of these is redundant phrases. 'She had a smile on her face.' Uh huh, and exactly where else would a smile be? There's no need to tell us that a smile is on someone's face. Or an expression either. How many times have you seen, "The expression on her face was comical, as was expression on her knees -- though the expression on her stomach was perturbed, because her butt was smiling." It's like saying "her mind thought" or "Her ears heard", "Her eyes saw". Be careful of these subtler redundancies. You'll be surprised how often they can creep up on you.

Bottom line: Be aware of your word use, and build your scenes with purpose and ECONOMY.

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