Friday, June 26, 2020

Revisiting How We Stage Our Writing

I've been doing a lot of discussion about the details of writing an active sentence, but in a way this talk has violated a basic rule for writers - I should show you, not tell you, the problem and the solution. So on that note I am offering a revisit to a very popular article I presented two years ago that showed the simple way a sentence can work. It also reminds me of the words of Ravina Thakkar, who passed away last year at an all-too-young age of twenty. I hope she inspires you as well!

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I have been sick the past week, so this gave me a great opportunity to do some editing. More importantly, it was a chance to look at some of my writing not as a writer, but as an editor. During the past week on the couch, I edited a 118,000-word manuscript, and it ended up at about 98,000 words. Characters were eliminated, a couple of scenes were consolidated, but most of the 20,000 words I eliminated had more to do with stage management.

As writers, we are not only in charge of creating a world but also making it very real to our readers. In my mind, I can see the characters going about their activities, and I translate that all to the page to share this with the reader. This goes for describing the setting, visualizing the characters, and walking the reader through their actions. But once I do that, I then have to ask myself, "How much of that was necessary?"

The other day I was listening to the author Ravina Thakkar (The Adventure of A Lifetime) talk about her experiences with an editor. She offered a great insight that I think we can all learn from. She said, "I wrote a five-page description of a classroom, and then realized everyone already knew what a classroom looked like." This is a very concise way of pointing out that even the best writing might not be necessary. She didn't say her description was bad. Indeed, it might've been incredible. The question was what did it bring to the narrative? If it didn't contribute much, or give the reader something to work with, then it is worth taking up space?

I did a separate post about using description properly and for effect. This post is about how we stage-manage the characters, and what is and isn't necessary with their actions and mannerisms. These can also be very concise, very detailed, and often very unnecessary. And since there are more actions in a story than descriptions, there are more opportunities to tighten up our writing.

Let's take an example from the manuscript I edited from the comfort of my couch:

"Richie went into his bar, walked to the back room, opened his office door, moved to his desk and sat down."

This is the stripped-down version of a simple sentence -- descriptions taken out to get to the point. On the positive side, this does walk us through the entire route Richie takes in going to his office at the bar. It tells us the bar is his, that the office is in the back room, and he has a desk there. We walk his route, we arrive with him at his desk. There is nothing wrong with this sentence.

However, there is very little right with this sentence.

First, the structure. It's a chain of four- and five-word subject-verb-prepositional-phrase statements that reads without any interest. It has a monotonous pace. If we mix up the wording just a little at the beginning, the pacing becomes more interesting. "Richie entered his bar and went directly to the back room..." Now the pacing has changed, and it does not have the drum beat of a boring sentence. That doesn't save us any words, but it makes for a better sentence.

As far as word count goes, Richie takes twenty-one words to get to his office, but how many are necessary? When he enters his office, is it necessary to use two phrases to say he goes to his desk and sits down? Can't he just go sit at his desk? Do we need to talk about him opening the door? If it is important to the plot that the door is closed or open, then yes. Otherwise, most people understand how an office door works and it can be left out. If we know where his office is, do we need to mention that he goes through the back room to get there?  Maybe we can strip it down to taking Richie from A to B:

"Richie went to his bar and settled into his office."

That sentence is half the length and moves the reader along with the same effect. This kind of stage management usually clutters our first drafts, but is easy to filter out once we look at it again and decide how much is really necessary.

On a final note, that sentence can actually say a lot more if the writer draws attention to it. Look at what happens when our example is preceded by some verbal stage-setting:

"The routine never changed. Richie went into his bar, walked to the back room, opened his office door, moved to his desk and sat down."

By pointing out the monotony, the boring sentence structure now helps describe the scene.

This is all part of the joy of editing, but as our writing improves, we start catching these things as we write them.

3 comments:

  1. I remember this post, and I noticed you kept "went" this time too instead of using a more active verb. What is your reasoning?

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    1. The only reason I did it this time is that this was a complete, verbatim copy/paste of the old post word-for-word.

      I could do a discussion about how sometimes a passive very in a string of verbs sounds more natural and takes away any sense of forced writing, but that is a matter of personal taste and perhaps saved for another day.

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