I once had a discussion with a neighbor about writing. He was a fan of books that he said, “challenged him.” Books that he had to work to get through and when he was done, never completely explained what happened. He liked the idea that the author left that task to him. To me however, this sounds a bit like hiring a painter to paint your house, only to have him show up with paint, ladders, and brushes saying, “Here you go, have fun.” I have no doubt there are many others who agree with my neighbor—some may enjoy the experience of painting their home—but I also know dude ranchers out west can hardly believe they can get city-folk to pay money to do their work for them.
As an author, I feel it is my job to do the work, not the reader. As such I try to make reading my stories as easy and enjoyable as possible, and one of those ways is to not make a reader read one word more than is necessary. Whether you like Hemingway or not, his minimalist style was a necessary counterpoint to a literary tradition of poetically bloated books. I personally feel Hemingway went too far, carrying his idea to an extreme that hinders the art that words can create, but his idea is a sound one—take out the unnecessary words.
Bob sat down.
This is a pretty simple sentence. There are only three words, but nevertheless it is wordy because one of those words is not only unnecessary, it’s redundant. Can you find it?
So then, Bob went back into his room to get his wallet, and then he ran back out to the car again.
Lots of unnecessary words here.
Better yet: Bob got his wallet from his room.
Trimming the fat in this way, makes prose cleaner, tighter, easier to read, and more powerful, but you can do more than just cut excess words. You can multitask.
Multitasking is doing more than one thing at the same time. Applied to writing, it is saying more than one thing with the same words. Why make a reader read a whole paragraph describing Harvey who is visiting Bob and then another whole paragraph describing Bob’s house. Wouldn’t it be better to do both at the same time?
The house was a two-story colonial painted yellow with green shutters, and a brick chimney. It sat on a quarter acre lot that sloped to the left. There was a maple tree in the front and a pair of birch trees in the back. A vegetable garden could be seen to the left of the house, and a swing set to the right, and the garage door was open reveling the back of Bob’s car.
Harvey did not live in as nice a home as Bob. In comparison, Harvey lived in a dump. The reason was obvious, Bob made a lot more money than Harvey and he could afford to have the nicer things in life. When people asked Harvey about Bob, Harvey was always polite, saying Bob was a great guy, but he actually hated Bob, not because Bob had ever done anything to deserve his hate, but because Bob always got what he wanted and Harvey never did.
In the above two paragraphs I described Bob’s house and then Harvey and how Harvey feels about Bob. But let’s see if we can do all three at the same time, and with less Telling.
Bob’s house was one of those perfect colonials always pictured on the cover of magazines that Harvey could only afford to look at. It was painted vomit yellow with showy green shutters, and a brick chimney built with all the craftsmanship of a robot. On the side was one of those huge wooden playgrounds parents appeased their kids with. On the other side was a vegetable garden. It was well kept. Bob probably had illegals working it at night so he could stand out there on weekends waving at his neighbors. Bob’s garage door was open and Harvey could see a newly waxed Mercedes. Harvey guessed an American car was just not good enough for old Bob.
In the first paragraph, the house is described objectively, in the last it is infused with Harvey’s negative PoV. The result is how Harvey sees the house tells you just as much about Harvey as it does about Bob, Bob’s house, and the two men’s relationship.
Using PoV in combination with description can result in delivering twice, to three times the information, to a reader with far less words. If done well, you can describe a place, a subject character, and the PoV character all at the same time.
Danny was always a stickler for precision, even his pens were lined up on his desk an equal distance apart. That’s what made him such a good pilot, it also made him a pain in the ass to room with—particularly in zero-g.
In these two sentences I managed to explain that the scene takes place in Danny’s office, and that it was very neat. I further related that Danny is a good pilot, and that he is a very orderly person who pays attention to even tiny details and that this assists in helping him with his job as a pilot. I also revealed that Danny is an astronaut. In addition, I revealed that the PoV character respects Danny, but also finds his obsession with orderliness irritating. I also revealed that the two characters have both been in space on the same mission. We can also assume Danny was the pilot of that mission. All this is added simply by playing with the PoV in conjunction with the description.
The idea is to focus on the primary task of describing the setting, or the subject person, but also, through how that description is written, reveal who the PoV character is by showing how that person interprets what they experience. A dog can be a cute puppy, or a mangy mutt. A woman can be hot, or a whore. A lake can be serene, or a death trap. A birthday cake can be festive, or one more nail in the coffin.
You can also apply this same idea to the plot. Don’t write a chapter or even a scene merely to demonstrate that a character is smart, or evil, and don’t write a scene where a character walks though a town, just to describe the town. Don’t even do both at the same time. Always make certain that you have a legitimate plot point, an event that advances the story and then around that add the character and setting aspects. If the character has to see a specific car to advance the plot, have him wandering the streets looking so you can also describe the town, and have his method of searching reveal his intelligence. Always do more than one thing, or you are wasting space and your reader’s time.
Let’s go back to the now infamous Seven-11 milk buying scene. If you were to write the scene where the PoV character walks in and buys a gallon of milk, how differently would you describe the store and its clerk, if in the first instance your PoV character was an urban vampire, like Angel, trying to kick the habit of killing humans, and in the second he was Sherlock Holmes on his way home after a tough day working a frustrating case? Do you think that you could adequately illustrate who the main character is without using any descriptions of the PoV character and restricting yourself to only using the description of the store and clerk?
Here then is another homework assignment. Try writing those two scenes. No more than a page each. But under no circumstance are you allowed to provide any direct descriptions of the PoV characters. You can’t say, “as a vampire, he didn’t really like milk…” You can only reveal the PoV character by how they view the world around them—by their unique PoV.
After you write them, give each to a friend to read and see if they can figure out who the PoV characters are. If you don’t like Angel and Holmes pick others, someone the person reading will know. You can present it like, “Read this and tell me who you think the main characters are—they are famous people who may or may not be fictitious.” For more fun invite more than one person to read them and have them discuss who they think the main characters are.
If anyone does this, please leave a comment letting me know how it went.
That’s the bell. No pushing or shoving.
Next week: How to Begin