Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Slow, or Clever?

Maybe we don't need to know how each hair was curled
There is a trend in modern writing with speed and brevity.  Like all trends it will some day go and another will take its place.  There's nothing wrong with getting to the point and skipping stuff.  I personally prefer Elmore Leonard's approach "When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip," because if they're not reading anyway, why put it in?  And certainly some books do drag on more than I prefer - I couldn't get into the Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books for that reason.

As authors, we're told in writing groups to cut the fat, keep things moving, and don't add too much extra into your books.  But there is a point at which you've gone too far in this quest.  Consider this review from a book (I won't say which):
There's no banter, no wisecracks, and nary a character beat for the sake of character dimensionality. Would Nick or anyone else in [the book] read Three Men in a Boat, play cribbage, build a still, or make the thickest malts in town? Only if it had plot utility later.
The problem here, assuming the review is accurate, is that the author was so fixated on serving the plot rather than telling the story.  Each action had to be brutally pared down to only that which moves the next event along or comes up later as a part of the plotline.

That is a danger with being too focused on brevity and focus.  In the drive to pare down your story, you can end up sacrificing good storytelling.

Your story has to serve three purposes:
  1. Move the plot along
  2. Develop the characters
  3. Set the scene
Has he gotten out of the car yet?
If what you've written doesn't do one or more of those things, then it should be cut, I believe.  Its filler.  But there's a lot of leeway in those three goals.  You can serve the story well by telling small quirks of the character, or describing the foliage of the forest, or giving background to an economic system - as long as its done engagingly and skillfully - even if some might call it "slow"

In the past, stories were more pastoral and patient.  Writers would take several pages to describe a scene, a chapter or two just setting up a character and their life, and even take half the book developing relationships before the story really gets rolling.  Modern readers aren't as patient as they once were, and are so surrounded by distractions, you have to grab them by the adenoids swiftly before their eyes move to something else.

Maybe you could have add some of that back in?
But that doesn't mean you have to abandon good storytelling and taking the time to do the job properly, either.  And there may come a day when the distractions are less significant, when people once again have more focus and patience to read.  And that day may welcome your book that people call "slow" or "over long."

As long as you write well and engagingly, then you can pretty well put the criticisms aside.  Just be sure you don't write dull and pedantic, or race so fast that you don't do the story justice.