Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Art of Restraint

I've been going through a season of working with other writer's words (which I always enjoy), and find it interesting that "overtelling" the story is so  frequently a problem for writers. (It could be that it is for me too, but I've really never heard that said much during feedback and critique times. My writing faults seem to run in a different direction.)

It's not always a case of "show don't tell," it's more a case of "tell, don't overtell." Sometimes there is incredible power in restraint.

Obviously, you never want to lose or confuse your reader, but you don't want to give them so much information that they are constantly having to readjust the mental version of the story that you want them to carry in their head and heart. It's very hard for a reader to immerse themselves in the world you have so painstakingly crafted when you're throwing detail after over-elaborated detail into the mix.You don't want them so busy looking at the stageworks that they miss the drama of the story.

Do I mean don't write a rich and descriptive work of art? Never! But do your best to be sure that your description (and your dialogue) always stops short of distraction. Let your reader meet you partway in building your characters and your plot. Because I suspect when you do this, you'll create a partnership with your audience that will always have them looking for your latest work and spreading the word for you.

Here are a few questions I might suggest you ask yourself when looking at any portion of your work that might be suspect:

1. Is it necessary?

Keep in mind that you may not be the best judge of this when you're in the white hot inspiration of the moment. Is your point  so vital to the plot that the story would fall apart without it?

2. Is it necessary here?

Assuming you've determined it HAS to be there, sometimes certain information can be handed off to another character, or placed at a different spot in the story so that it's not lost, but it's positioned in a better place to support the story and not bog down a scene.

3. What changes if I take it out?

That may seem like the same question as "is it necessary" but it's a different angle that some writers are able to be more objective about. If you can drop the number of adjectives and not lose the storyline, chances are they shouldn't be there. If you can ax the mother-in-law (assuming she's not  the victim of your murder mystery) because her contribution to the plot is shared with another character, she shouldn't be there. If she's only telling us what we can see perfectly well for ourselves, we don't need her parroting her way through the story.

4. Is there anything hooked to my ego in these words?

Sometimes we writers can't resist pointing out how clever we are. We want to offer a glimpse of our puppet-mastery behind the scenes. Unfortunately, there's really only one response to that - don't. Our more discerning readers will see it anyways and we'll be able to save our blushes for the right time. And if someone misses it, they'll at least be spared the insult of having you point out what they haven't seen.


P.s. There is a chance that this might seem a little risky. A sort of literary coyness, if you will. But never forget that a glimpse of Victorian ankle still managed to set pulses racing in its time ...

2 comments:

Marianne Kearns said...
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Marianne Kearns said...
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