Lessons Learned (Part 2)

Posted by Dwayne on March 28, 2012

Continuing with my thoughts about the Big Sur Writing Workshop, the second general category of critique I noticed had to do with over/under writing.

Most of us, myself included, had a tendency to repeat ourselves or over describe a scene. This tendency was displayed in both description and dialogue. Some degree of repetition is necessary, but that seems to be mostly when dealing with character tics. The point then being to emphasize the specific affectation. However, when dealing with setting or characters repeating words, then the effect on a scene is damaging. It slows things down and creates the feeling of drudgery. We should strive for fewer words, but more precise, words.

Of course, the flip side of the coin also presents problems. Under describing or under communicating can leave a reader feeling lost. There’s simply not enough information to convey the image necessary to carry the scene.

In short:

  • The sure sign of over-writing is that the scene drags and feels bogged down … slogging through the mud.
  • The sure sign of under-writing is that the reader feels rushed and confused … something is missing.

The third and final general category of critique involved clarity. I realize this sounds suspiciously like “under-writing” mentioned above, but there is a distinction. With under-writing, the problem was not enough information to fill out the scene.  The category of “clarity”, however, deals with how the words are put together to convey information.

When following a discussion between two characters, the reader should never have any doubt as to who’s speaking (unless the author intends to be confusing, and then he/she had better have a good reason for doing so). There were several instances of wondering who was talking. We can’t add dialogue tags to every line … hold it … we SHOULD NOT add any more dialogue tags than absolutely necessary!  Yet, sometimes they are necessary to eliminate ambiguity and confusion.

In a similar fashion, when describing a setting, the reader should be able to visualize the vital elements effortlessly. This doesn’t mean every reader will walk away with an identical mental image, but it does mean every reader will easily see their own internal version of the setting.

Both of these general ideas–over/under writing, clarity–fall into an even more general notion of “flow”. How easily does the writing carry the reader from one sentence to the next? Are there mental speed bumps that force the reader to pause to figure things out? If the “flow” is good, then the reader is swept along through the story like a boat drifting down a stream.

Mental speed bumps and jarring writing can be effective at times, but they should be exceptions, not the rule.

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