Thursday, May 12, 2011

TIPS: Issues with Sparseness

In one of the published novels I've been reading, the plot zips along at a fairly rapid pace. I've only read the first 30 pages and in one scene there was a whole page and a half dedicated to a history lesson about this one minor character. Now, the history lesson was really cool. It delved into how he got this particular artefact, how a friend of his died, and why he was so desperate to get across town to give the artefact to someone else. The problem was that it read like a timeline and really would've been more interesting if the author had dramatised it. As it was, it got a bit dull.

Other sections of the book suffer from a similar problem although in those instances, it wasn't exposition to blame. It was a desperate desire to skip along to the next bit that led to whole paragraphs feeling like an exercise in ... and then ... and then ... and then....

Unpublished authors can also have trouble with this one, especially since they're encouraged to cut out every unnecessary word in the sentence. It doesn't help that most of the advice involves the Delete key. Throw out all of the POV slips, the adjectives, the 'was' and 'were', remove this, reduce that, and combine the other. It's rare to find an article that says: 'put more words in'.

Yet if you hear critters complaining about a 'lack of protagonist perspective', 'where are they, anyway?' or even that there's little sense of tension, it might be that you've written too sparsely. Perhaps you need to add words. Add a few choice adjectives, some internal dialogue, or some description. Perhaps you need to slow it down, pad it out, and keep it from sounding like a laundry list of activity interspersed with dialogue.

I know this used to be one of my problems. 'More POV' and 'More Description' they would clamor and I would be confused. Weren't my favorite authors known for their sparse writing and their snappy dialogue?

I went back to those authors and re-read them and I found that their pages weren't full of lines of dialogue and ultra-brief narrative elements. To make matters worse, I found that they could increase tension and add a sense of speed to a novel by adding block after block of well-written and meaty paragraphs. Counter-intuitive, I know, but they managed it.

So, as a writing exercise, I suggest you all go over to those legendary so-called 'sparse' and 'tight' writers you read and take a look to see how sparse they really are. If you're told about pacing difficulties, flat tension, confusion about locations, or a lack of character depth, consider whether you should add more words rather than take them all away.

Sometimes less isn't more. Sometimes, less is just less.


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  2. So true. I know for a fact that my writing tends to by sparse by nature simply because I'm so focused on the story and characters. Therefore I have first-hand experience of adding tension by adding words. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that most of my edits will involve adding details rather than pulling out words.


  3. For some reason, Misha's comment went missing from this one... *sigh*

  4. I think we all need to find our own writing style, and I agree, this is where the 'rules' can really screw things up. Really, creating a novel that works is really a massive balancing act, and it's only one we can achieve if we be true to ourselves and our style, and while we know the rules, find out own way.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  5. Leave it to Angela to say it so beautifully.