Well, it took me a while to figure it out, but I did.
(Occasionally I’ll share a story critique here that I think will benefit all writers. We need examples of problems and examples of solutions so we can spot these situations in our own stories and correct them.)
A friend had written an end-of-the-world story about a virus, and it was interesting but it wasn’t grabbing me. I like to be grabbed.
What was wrong?
This isn’t usually the kind of story I’d usually seek out, so I had to look past that.
Then I had to read several chapters to really see it. In this case, about 9 chapters. He writes looooooong chapters, too, so this was a real effort for a friend.
My conclusion? It was too wordy, it lacked emotional depth, and it lacked tension.
Those are serious crimes, my friends – and yet it was still a good story!
Here’s what I saw and what I said to him. Learn from these examples. (The character names and other things have been changed so we don’t ruin the story before it comes out)
- TOO WORDY: using too many words to convey not enough action/information.
Hungry. He rummaged around in his bag of snacks for something resembling breakfast. A flat Diet Pepsi and one Monster Slim Jim. Breakfast of couch potato champions. But better than nothing. Alex reached up to pull his mask off, eager for a good scratch. He’d forgotten how itchy they made his face.
Not bad, right? It was fine by itself, but in the story we saw patterns. He was telling us and showing us. Don’t. We readers will figure it out; we’re smart. Try this:
He rummaged around in his bag of snacks. A flat Diet Pepsi and one Monster Slim Jim. Breakfast of couch potato champions. Alex reached up to pull his mask off, eager for a good scratch.
Same meaning, fewer words.
- trust your reader to be smart
- even if you don’t, or aren’t comfortable doing it, at this point (9 chapters in) they’ve figured you out or they’ve put the story down. So trust them. And trust yourself. (Usually his happens after 2-3 chapters.)
But here was the big key:
- Are you sitting down? THIS type of wordiness is why you are rewriting. It’s not the only reason, but it’s a big one to me. This is what you’re doing when I say you’re using too many words to convey not enough action/information.
your original paragraph is 52 words
my example replacement is 35 words, a 33% reduction with increased clarity.
Also, you say his name because you don’t want to repeat “he” too much, which I get, but do it sparingly. You can say “Reaching up to pull his mask off…” or some such thing.
The lines about “Breakfast of couch potato champions” and “But better than nothing.” are competing for the same thing. The sarcasm says it the first time, the second line flattens the first one.
Do we need to know the brand of beef jerky? Isn’t the fact that he’s going to have beef jerky for breakfast enough? We can go from “one Monster Slim Jim” to “some beef jerky” – same meaning, fewer words, and maybe less distraction. And yes, only by 1 word, and I’m not that nit picky, but it’s 25% fewer for that phrase so consider it.
Now, if we take away too much, do we lose YOU and your unique voice in the process? Because this same story written by me is a completely different story than the one you have. But the answer is no, you won’t lose your voice. It’s your story.
I could probably take each paragraph in any chapter of this story and boil it down, and you’d have 1/3 fewer words but still the same story. That may be an exaggeration, but think about it.
TOMORROW: looking into the emotional depth and tension in this story, and showing examples of how to improve.
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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi” – yeah, we know. We’re trying to convince him to change that title – check out his other works here http://www.amazon.com/Dan-Alatorre/e/B00EUX7HEU/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1425128559&sr=1-1 and check back often for interesting stuff.