Saturday, May 07, 2011

Lesson One..Write Simply

Writing Is A Labyrinth---
This picture from  Guillermo del Toro's  "Pan's Labyrinth"
When reading authors who effortlessly glide through prose, painting amazing pictures with words, some new writers attempt to emulate them without understanding how the beloved author is executing his craft. As a result, the writing comes out convoluted, with pretty words slapped down for the sake of prettiness as opposed to function. 

I embrace the enthusiasm of these new writers, but sometimes learning to fly should occur only after one has managed to walk a straight line. Before leaping into bursts of metaphor and executing impressive literary gymnastics, I urge new writers to take a deep breath and consider the basics. And nothing is more basic than clarity.

If you are going to tell the story of someone walking down the street, then tell the story simply. Begin by making sure the reader sees it. Don't attempt to laden it with atmosphere and tension. Not yet. Just show us the man walking. Once you've mastered the ability to write clearly, the rest will follow.

"He walked down the street, his hands in his pockets. Occasionally, he looked over his shoulder. At the end of the street he stopped. He stood there for a long time. Wrapped in a heavy coat, he ignored the cold and the threat of rain."

See? Basic. Clear. Simple. If we want to go back and add some atmosphere, we can do so.

"He walked down the street, hands thrust in his pockets. Occasionally, he checked over his shoulder, pale eyes worriedly scanning the neighborhood. At the end of the street he stopped and stood for a long time. Wrapped in a heavy coat, he waited, ignoring the cold and the menacing clouds moving in above. The weather was the least of his concerns."

The second paragraph isn't that much different, but it increases tension and gives you more character description. The tweaks made do not impede clarity. Quite frankly, some of the changes in the second paragraph water down the tension from the first.

And if I started a story with this paragraph, but had no idea what I wanted to write about, I might now stop and ask "who is this guy?" "what is he worried about?" "Where is he?" etc.  If nothing else, it's a good writing exercise.

Ambition is a fine thing for a writer, but over-reach can kill a work and add to frustration. Who needs that? Instead, read some folk who knew how to write clearly and simply, but who knew how to do so with power. Hemingway comes to mind. Robert B. Parker is another (no, Parker wasn't a great writer, but he knew how to efficiently move a story forward---the man was the epitome of economy). Maybe clarity alone won't sell a manuscript, but without clarity, I promise rejection.

8 comments:

Joe Ponepinto said...

It is difficult not to fall in love with one's words, but you're right, Stewart, that clarity is the key. If your reader can't parse the prose, s/he won't stick around to get the story.

L.A. Mitchell said...

You're genius. Really. I have this issue of contstipated first draft. I spend the subsequent drafts trying to simplify. I need to read Hemmingway while I'm deep editing. Would be more second nature when it's fresh on the brain :) Hope you are well.

Brandon said...

I think this is my problem, too. I read a lot of horror fiction with colorful prose and masterful descriptions (Poppy Z Brite's Wormwood comes to mind). So when I go to write, I always feel intimidated. But you're right, clarity first, literary devices later.

LSBF consultant said...

You have some interesting thoughts! Perhaps we should contemplate about attempting this myself.

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