Thursday, July 26, 2007

Cut the Fat and the Metaphors

Most of you reading this already know what I'm going to say below, but I was working on this for an article for beginning writers and thought I would post it here. I've been working on a piece about how to speed up the pace of one's fiction in order to ratchet up the tension and suspense. Here's one of the points I made in the article.

"Cutting out extraneous wording can significantly increase the pace of a story, and the level of tension in suspenseful scenes. Phrases like “it seemed that” or “she wondered if” are often unnecessary anywhere in a tale, and they can be the deadly enemy of suspense. Even metaphors and similes, which are great for scene setting and for creating atmosphere, will slow the pace in action sequences. Tight noun and verb sentences convey the pounding, dynamic rhythm that the reader wants when bad things are about to happen on the page."


Lucas Pederson said...

I think I am a sinner. Great advice, though. Now I'm going to be flogging through each one of my manuscripts and deleting "seems" and "wondered", phrases. WHere is this article going to be? If it's a seceret, nevermind. But please do tell when you're ready. Great post buddy!

Shauna Roberts said...

This is an important point that beginning writers often don't seem to know.

When I copyedit other people's writing and when I edit my own, I'm often surprised at how much clearer a sentence becomes once I remove unnecessary words.

Even when I'm below my word limit on a medical piece, I'll go through and cut where I can to make my article as easy to understand as possible.

Shauna Roberts said...

Oh, and Lucas, remember, "all have sinned and fallen short." We could live to be 200 and still not be perfect writers. (Or maybe I should speak just for myself.)

Charles Gramlich said...

Lucas, in keeping with my policy of not talking too much before my chickens are hatched, I'll decline for now to name the possible publisher.

Shauna, yes, I often get frustrated with myself when I make the same error of "wordiness" over and over. It's so easy to fall into the habit of writing with excess verbiage and requires a lot of discipline to consistently cut it back. I'm a habitual sinner in this.

Steve Malley said...


Kill 'then'.

'Then' links two actions. Delete one. Or both, if the story will take it.

Need both actions? Make two sentences. Short sentences. Crisp sentences.

Keep it tight. Your hero comes home to find broken glass all over the floor of the baby's room. We see how it seems. We're already wondering. Don't tell us.

Short sentences help.

Short paragraphs too. :-)

William Jones said...

I've emptied many pens crossing out such words and phrases. The one I see often is: He could see... (why not: He saw...).

Heather said...

Yes, you must post where the article is pubbed so we can read the rest!

Danny Tagalog said...

Another useful reminder - it applies especially to suspense, but also in academic writing, which I'm sadly having to grapple with right now, it's overly noun heavy. The extricate-process is a never-ending story...

Unknown said...

William Zinsser's book _On Writing Well_ has outstanding tips on cutting "Clutter." I reread his chapter on "Clutter" every few months.

Some more suggestions from him and/or me:

Cut "both"
Cut adverbs
Use strong, colorful verbs
Avoid words ending in -ize or -tion
Avoid prepositional phrases

the walking man said...

The only word i know to get rid of is "like" after that I just keep paring it down till it sticks to the wall but doesn't smell like shit.



Bernita said...

I wondered about that.

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve, good point. Elsewhere in this article I have comments about short sentences and paragraphs. It's good advice.

William, I do things like that to. Sometimes the convoluted construction seems so natural that I put it down without thinking.

H.E. I will. Glad to see you on the boards. I hope all is well :)

Danny, I remember struggling with the issue in graduate school and at one point I'd cut a piece so lean my advisor "told" me to put in a few extraneous words so it wouldn't read like it had been impacted by a meteor.

Mark, yep, it's a bit like whittling.

Emily, great book. I've read it several times myself and need to do so again. I always read parts of the section on clutter to my classes whenever I'm talking about writing.

Bernita, I'm afraid I'm not sure what you're wondering about.