Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Simplicity is Often the Best

A few weeks ago, I was watching one of the Harry Potter movies on TV when my wife, after having checked the schedule, announced the movie would end at 10’oclock. “No way” I told her. I’d seen the movie many times before and knew there were plenty of scenes yet to go before the movie ended – definitely too many for it to end by ten. To no one’s surprise but my own, the movie ended at the appointed time, not only managing to include every scene I remembered (plus some I had forgotten), but with enough time left over to show us previews of the next scheduled movie.

Turns out it took less time to get through those scenes that I thought.

And that’s the point of today’s post. Now that I’m revising my way through my first draft, one problem that keeps popping up is my tendency to use more words than necessary to describe a scene. I’m not talking about simple filler words such as "just," "really," "sort of," and "rather" – although I do use them too much – I’m referring to my need to over-explain.

Periodically I go back and read Rowling’s chapters, not only for inspiration, but often to see how she handled a particular type of situation. And I’m astonished at how often I come across a scene that I remembered as being long and full of complicated explanations only to discover that the scene was only a page or two in length and written in surprisingly simple terms. Rowling had given me just enough information to explain what I needed to know and my imagination had filled in the rest.

And that is what I’m struggling with. Turns out I’m a very visual writer, so I feel the need to explain every movement and action that occurs, whether the reader needs to know or not. Here’s an example. Imagine a scene where a band of adventurers are about to enter a castle that looks ready to collapse at any moment. The leader of the party is out in front of the group (and is the POV character).

John looked up at the tower which leaned perilously over to one side. “Robert, you stay here. Sarah will enter with me.” John was disappointed when Robert merely nodded, his previous enthusiasm apparently dampened.

Here’s the problem (well, besides the obvious telling). As far as the reader knows, John is still looking at the tower and wouldn’t be able to see Robert nodding behind him. I suspect most readers would understand that John has probably turned his head at some point, but as a writer I feel this compulsion to add “John turned” somewhere in there in order to make sure no one gets confused.

I have yet to learn the art of subtlety in writing. Every time one of my characters moves, or sees something, or does something, I feel obliged to mention it. And that’s a habit I’m going to have to break. Learning the technique of giving the reader just enough information to understand what’s happening is one of those milestones I’ll have to pass if I ever expect to get published. And I might as well get started now, as I can only imagine what it’s going to be like when I get around to editing action scenes where all sorts of things are happening all at once.

Does anyone have any tricks they use for tightening up their scenes?


  1. Oh gosh, I have the same problem. I want to write out every little action so people won't get confused. Then there's so much filler that people get confused >.< I wonder if it's just us science-minded folks who have a tendency to over-explain, or if every new writer has this problem?

    1. I think everyone has it to a certain extent, but you might be right about the science-minded people. Even worse, I've taught chemistry classes and I'm used to going over every detail to make sure my students get what I'm talking about.

  2. You know, this is something I'm working on right now. My CP uses the term "authorial camera" to make sure you're showing everything correctly, where people are standing etc. BUT that throws in needing to know the balance of what's necessary and what isn't.

    Your reader has a great imagination and doesn't need everything spelled out (think of it like a movie camera- they don't need to know everything like they would see in a movie) because their imagination fills in the holes.

    Not easy, but it's amazing that you've recognized this :)

    1. Maybe not that amazing. My sentences are so bloated sometimes that even my cat would recognize that I need to simplify.

  3. Since I really enjoy your visual scenes, the only one that sticks in my head as needing less explanation is the ticket taker reading the newspaper. Oh yeah, and the cobwebs & candles you already fixed. All this means is either you've already passed that milestone or I haven't. But I was totally confused by a fight scene one of my SCBWI group did because she didn't mention the positioning, so you can't always do without choreography. And I hate when somebody opens a door or leaves without ever moving from the other side of the room. I'm more inclined to keep the word count in line by substituting movements for dialog tags.