Saturday, January 13, 2018

Technical Topic - Thinking About Saying Stuff Twice

tl:dr summary:
Don’t say stuff twice.

I don't know about you, but I do this all the time. My final editing is full of me sitting in coffee shops muttering, 
"I've just said he can see over the crowd. I don't need to say --'Because he was tall he could see over the crowd.' 

What's the reader going to think? 
That he got up on a chair? That he went jump jump jump? That he has a periscope?
They've figured out he's tall. 
This is how I tell the reader he's tall.

Take this early draft example of a man walking into a room. The purpose of the two paras . . .
(Every paragraph and page and scene has a purpose and you should be able to figure out what it is) . . .
is to show the reaction to his entry and to make the reader wonder What Is Going On Here?

He was late for dinner. They’d started without him. Their plates were already full and the footmen had finished serving the vegetables round. Everyone fell silent when he walked in. They turned, their forks in the air, looking annoyed and more than a little offended that he’d been so impolite. Well, he was here. They’d have to make the best of it no matter what reservations they harbored. His seat was midway down the side. Empty, of course. Waiting for him. His father and brothers and the guests turned to watch him as he found his place. The footmen pulled out his chair and settled him among the others. They’d been well trained. Blank faced, they bustled to bring the platters back and offer him what the others were eating. Roast duck and vegetables. Sauces to go with them. Spicy garnishes along the side of the plate.

He didn’t bother to make apologies.

Well, I wouldn't necessarily read my way through that with any care and I wouldn't pick up what's important if I did and most of it is boring because it blathers on and doesn't say anything new.. 
Let's cut the wordage in half.

When he walked in, everyone fell silent. His father and brothers and the guests turned, forks in the air, annoyed and offended. Well, he was here. Let them deal with it. His chair waited for him. Blank-faced footmen bustled to seat him and offer roast duck and vegetables, sauces, spicy garnishes along the side of the plate.

He didn’t bother to make apologies.

I’d argue that the second version keeps the action and conveys the feelings. It shows the visuals of the scene. Most importantly, it still poses all the questions that are supposed to draw the reader onward. 
Questions like:

Why is he late?
Why do family and guests have to like it or lump it?
Why do they keep his chair empty and ready for him?
Why doesn’t he apologize?

There's no change much in the order of action or the responses. The difference is that the second version hacks away the kudzu of needless repetition. There is so much the reader will assume even when you don't say it.
Trust the reader.

Lookit the first three sentences of the original passage:
He was late for dinner.
They’d started without him.
plates were already full and the footmen had finished serving the vegetables round.

Now, none of this is throw-the-book-at-the-wall-awful stuff, 
but “Forks in the air,” is all we need. 

That four-word phrase contains late for dinner,
they haven’t waited for him,
they’ve started eating, 

he's not VERY late, they’ve got as far as the first bites but not further. 

“But” – you may say – “I want to paint a picture of what’s going on.
I need to give the reader details."

And there is much to be said for doing that. But sometimes description can more usefully be wielded in a spot where it serves a couple of purposes and also doesn't get underfoot.
I will talk about that in the next post.


  1. So good to have you back and giving us glimpses into your process. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Jo. That was wonderful.

    1. Hope folks find some of this useful. I do like to natter on about the writing process.

  3. Thanks, Jo. This is very helpful. Getting that balance right can be so tricky.

    1. Especially since there's no one answer. The paragraph example I gave needed to be decluttered.

      I could take another example and call it too spare and simple. Say it needed a whole line of Internals.

      About the only stuff I can be sure needs cutting is where I say almost exactly the same thing twice.
      And I do this All The Time.

  4. Since I do a lot of skimming when I'm reading for pleasure, I know how right you are about cutting out the unneeded stuff. But that can also expose the lack of something that ought to be there.

    I love the "forks in the air" phrase. It captures the moment perfectly. But then he walks to his place, he is seated, he is served, and I'm wondering about those forks in the air. Isn't stuff dripping on the tablecloth by now? Are they all still sitting there in frozen silence?

    1. Oh giggle ... *g*

      Perhaps they are all telekinetics and the forks are floating in the air all by their lonesome. I like that.

      Actually, though, this is a generally useful thing to think about.

      The characters engage in an endless sequence of actions. We pick one motion out of the hundreds to represent them all
      and to do other useful stuff. That one action we choose can convey emotion, tell us danger is coming, speak of lost hopes and fevered dreams, or simply skip over twenty minutes of wandering about the house doing nothing in particular.

      So if what happened is literally --

      He went step step step seventeen times up the stairs with his hand on the rail. Removed his hand from it. Walked twenty steps down the hall swinging his arms. Stopped. Put his hand on the door knob. Turned it counterclockwise. Opened the door. Walked through. Released the door knob. Pulled the door closed behind his back.
      He said, "Did I leave Homer up here?"

      We only have to pick a tiny bit of it.

      Conventionally we might write this as
      "He came in, saying 'Did I leave Homer ..."

      But there's also:

      He stood outside the door to the library for a while, thinking, before he turned the knob.
      "Did I leave ..."

      He came upstairs slowly and entered the library. "Did I leave ..."

      He shut the door behind him, softly, his eyes wary. "Did I leave ..."

      So it's not just, we can leave out hundreds of unnecessary details and let the reader assume they happened.

      It's also, in similar situations we pick slightly different details just to keep it interesting. (How many specific motions can say 'Well, here he is in the room?')

      And, we try to match the chosen detail to a larger purpose.