A Few Words More–or Less?


Does the line need a little more, does a description need an adjective, or maybe a little about a thing’s sound or motion as well as its shape? It all comes down to words.

(The Unified Writing Field Theory — searchings and findings on what makes stories work)

After all, if the writer doesn’t mention something, the reader may never suspect that part of his grand vision was there, or that quirk of dialog that shows how unique the character is… but at the same time, that word might be a misstep or simply a distraction from what’s more important.

One great perspective on finding that balance is the Five Principles of the Puppeteer. –Yes, puppets, an interesting way to look out of the rut writers may be in. Mary Robinette Kowal thinks of words the way she moves her puppets, taking responsibility to choose which motion to emphasize (and what other motions to give the puppet the illusion of how real muscles would react) and what would be a distracting “head-bobbing.”

Another model I like is a certain mobster’s girlfriend’s advice about the right clothes–that they “should call attention to you, not themselves,” that it’s all about the total effect. Or think of a film camera: what objects, what balance of light and shapes, what symbols does the director want to get in the frame and what would clutter it up? (A more exact image might be storyboarding: you choose which things are worth sketching in and which to just leave out, to be implied by the rest.)

Every line written has an opportunity to add another small touch or two to bring to life just what’s there and why. The person or object in the moment’s center might be obvious, but do you fill in what’s behind that, or what’s lying in the corner? you probably work in some sounds with all the sights, but do you mention how the floor feels, or any smells? And do you mention them when setting the scene or later, or drop a mention early and then remind the reader?

And in dialog this applies twice over. On the one hand you have all the things a character might say on the way to his point, and just the pauses and halts that give another glimpse at his personality, and on the other you still decide how many expressions, gestures, and full “walk and talk” descriptions to mix in to keep the moment from becoming pure Talking Heads.

But, keeping the balance… we all know what happens if writing tries to cover everything in a room, or every wasted word that real conversation has.

One trick is, sometime, to not wedge more things into view but color the thing there with an extra word or so. Instead of spelling out how loud and powerful a motorcycle is as it moves in, is it enough to make it a “black motorcycle” or “Harley” and just let that give a sense of vividness to everything around it? A world made up of Harleys and the asphalt is more colorful than bikes on the road–unless it reflexively uses the fancier words every time, not caring when a thing’s less important or already established.

The classic form of that choice is adverb vs verb, and adjective vs noun. If a sentence comes out “John ran down the road,” an easy way to amplify it might be to make it “ran desperately”… but that draws the reader’s eye a little to that second word, a slight distraction compared to some more direct “dashed down” or “panted down.” Also, we all know adverbs and adjectives are the easier way to think of an image’s flavor, so they make the writing look a little more ordinary.

Still, again, not everything deserves the stronger verb or noun–and if they’re still just important enough to not leave out, a throwaway adverb or adjective can do the job. Then of course come the moments when the modifers are the only natural ways to show something (how much do you want to zigzag just to avoid calling the bike “black”?), or when the occasional explosive modifier could liven things up without making the phrasings seem modifier-heavy. For that matter, a style that uses too few adverbs and adjectives can start the reader thinking something’s odd about it, another distraction.

Dialog tags might be the most intense form of this, because the structure of dialog makes tags so conspicuous. Each adjective and adverb there gets framed by quote marks, in what may be pages of short-ish paragraphs to show any patterns of overuse… but the same spotlight makes flashier verbs like he snarled conspicuous too, and at least as easy to overuse. And even though “said” is called an “invisible” tag in comparison to all those, too many of those get noticed too, when many of them might not be needed at all or could be replaced with a separate “He gulped his drink” sentence.

Like the puppets or clothes, it all comes back to priorities. What’s most likely to change the story (of course the big villain doesn’t arrive on just “a motorcycle”), especially if it’s still new? Setting a part of the scene is good, but if those shadows just might have someone setting an ambush or the walls make it harder to run, the view starts falling into place.

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