Taking a seasonal break, in the meantime here's one from the vault first posted in October 2012. See you in the New Year.
The idea that the more words used the clearer the meaning becomes is one that trips up a lot of writers.
Not that additional details are always a bad thing, but the ‘a little more information couldn’t hurt’ approach is very definitely wrong. It can very much hurt.
If I want to visit you then there is a minimum amount of info (street and house number), and an optimum amount (best route, which exit to take) that I need. And then there’s an excessive amount (the name of your neighbour’s dog).
On the other hand, what difference does it make if you mention the neighbour’s dog? It’s not going to make the address harder to find.
This is usually where a story gets muddled, even though what it’s telling you isn’t hard to understand. It’s not that you can’t use language to paint a picture or a mood, but you also need to be aware that words on a page have an effect that has nothing to do with their literal meaning. Words have the power to impact readers on a more primal level.
The number of words used to impart an idea or description, the length of sentences and of paragraphs, can all change the way words enter a reader’s brain. You can use this knowledge to create different effects, but the effects will also be there even when you don’t mean them.
If you are unaware of what these effects are, you can end up unconsciously creating a reading experience you did not intend. And not all experiences are good experiences.
Short sentences, short paragraphs, lots of white space on the page, speeds things up. It can be choppy and lack flow if used to excess, but generally that won’t cause too much problem for a reader.
Long sentences can be lyrical and evocative. But the instinctual reaction is to assume more words equals more important. If your aim is only to describe something clearly, you can’t relate that to the reader just by thinking it while you write.
If June is going to a party and I want the reader to know what she looks like in her new outfit I might take my time describing each item of clothing. But it’s also going to have other effects.
The longer I go on, the more important clothing is going to seem to this woman. The clothes may also start to carry an implication that later they will play a part in the story. Thematically, clothes and other features of her outfit (the colours, the style, the language used) will be assumed to be important to what follows.
If these things are intentional, that’s fine. But if they aren’t, it’ll still be assumed that they are. And if that isn’t followed through, the story will be judged as a failed attempt at something that was never intended.
As well as importance, number of words also correlates to time. This is not optional, it always happens.
“Where are you going?” asked James.
Karen turned around. Her hair was lank and unwashed. She was wearing the same t-shirt, the green one that said ‘I’m with this idiot’ with an arrow pointing up at herself, and the same jeans as the day before. Her nails were filthy.
“Nowhere,” she said.
No matter what my intention, that will be read as a pause between question and answer. If my intention is to let the reader know what Karen looks like, but the conversation to be without break, that’s not how it will be read. And the longer the stuff between question and answer, the longer the pause. Even if it’s possible for James to take in her appearance in a single, quick glance, that’s immaterial. How long I take to tell you what he sees instantly will be what the reader uses to judge the passage of time (unless I specifically point out that James saw all the things described in an instant).
This becomes a big deal when writers choose to use a heavily descriptive style. It’s not just about purple prose or claiming literary fiction as a defence, but about placement and structure. If people are pausing for minutes at a time in between a basic conversation, or thinking encyclopaedia-length thoughts as they walk from the sitting room to the kitchen, it’s going to feel weird and unrealistic. And very slow.
Equally, if you use very short sentences in a scene that’s not very tense, you’re going to create a rushed, urgent feel.
The point here isn’t that there’s anything wrong with slowing things down or speeding them up, but more that often writers will not put any thought into the choice other than going with whatever takes their fancy. If you feel like writing a long paragraph painting a picture of the sky, why not? And the answer is because your characters are in the middle of a gunfight, and that’s not the best time to write 500 words on the colour blue.
It’s not always possible to be aware of these things when you are in full flow and trying to get an early draft completed, but when going over a piece of writing it’s worth considering the amount of text you’re giving to detailed description and action sequences in order to gauge whether the pacing and focus on events is appropriate to what’s happening in the scene.
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