Monday, September 23, 2013

Common Mistakes #2: Less is More

Another common mistake I see is beginning authors piling on the images, or metaphors, or reusing jokes. For example, the protagonist will ride his trusty steed into a forest, and the author will start a description of the forest with a nice image of the trees—and then another, and another and another and another until one cannot see the forest for the imagery....[sorry]. What I mean is, the first image will be striking, and the reader will think, "nice image!" and then read another couple of words and find another striking image, and think, "oh wow, another nice image—I can really see it;" and then bump into yet another image and think, "oh, that's, uh, vivid," and then another image and think, "say, this is really quite dense description". By the next image the reader is either getting impatient to get back to the story—which has likely ground to a halt—or going, "wait, what was that about the leaves again?", because one can only take in so many images piled atop one another before hitting sensory overload. The more images stacked up, the weaker each one becomes. One cannot emphasize the leaves and the trunks and the branches and the roots and the piles of dead leaves and the moss and the ants and that deer over there and the way the sun glints through the trees and the way the pattern of light dapples the forest floor and keep on to cover the entire ecology of the forest...because if everything is emphasized, nothing is.

Or, to put it another way, while it might have taken the writer three days to shape that description of the forest, and so had time to savor each carefully crafted image, the reader is going past at a 1,000 words a minute. Okay, maybe if you're Proust or James Joyce, readers will slow down for you, but, um, you're not. Not yet, anyway. So less is more. Out of the ten images you've come up with, pick the best one; prune the rest. This will usually make the scene—and your writing—leaner, tighter and so much better.

Same with metaphors, jokes, and even surplus characters. Had a manuscript across my desk yesterday where a writer used essentially the same line twice within three pages. It was funny and it built up the speaker's character, but you can't get a laugh out of the same punchline twice in three pages; one of them has to go. Later that same day, I was reading a another manuscript where the author introduced several characters, spent time describing them, building up their personalities, but then didn't actually have them do anything in the story. They were just sort of there...except for one character who sat out the entire story in the barn, and so wasn't even there. Maybe save the barn character for another story.... Just because you thought of an image, or a metaphor or a character, or a funny line doesn't mean you have to use it. Keep to the point, keep things moving forward, and restrict yourself to your very best material.

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