Ten Elements of Bad Storytelling (we all use)
#8: Wordiness and Overdescription
During the revision process of my first book, ELANTRIS, my editor sent me back a copy of the manuscript which proverbially bled with edits and suggestions. One of the things he wrote on that piece has always remained with me. It came in a particular place at the beginning of a chapter where I had tried to write something particularly poetic, had ended up using some rather uncommonly large words. Moshe’s response to this?
“Brandon, you can’t be Gene Wolf for one sentence!”
Gene Wolf is one of fantasy’s most poetic writers, a man who has a particular skill with words and language. I’ve often thought about that statement from my editor, and its implications. What does it mean to writing fiction?
One of the things I often talk about with new writers is ‘overwriting.’ Essentially, overwritten paragraphs are ones where the author is obviously trying too hard to make their prose sound poetic, and by doing so simply pack the sentences with adverbs, adjectives, and impressive-sounding words.
Is this good for storytelling? Obvious not. Not only does it make for clunky prose, but it often stops the reader as they try to figure out just what the heck you were trying to say. I often have to explain this to new writers, teaching them to be concise first. If they can learn concision, I figure, they can then learn to be poetic when the time is right.
However, I now wonder if the time is EVER right for that in storytelling. Now, I’m not looking at what creates beautiful prose or majestic writing in these essays. I’m looking at what tells good stories. And, in this point, I’d like to offer the argument that most of us writers tend to try to be poetic when it really isn’t appropriate for telling a story.
We do it. I think we ALL do it. We love language, and in loving language, we want to use our words to not just tell a story, but to evoke something beautiful as well. That’s great, but I think that when we do so (and I don’t actually intend to stop) we actually do our stories a disservice. A good example from Mistborn is the following pair of lines which start off a chapter in Mistborn 2:
“Mist swirled and spun, like monochrome paints running together on a canvas. Light died in the west, and night came of age.”
Poetic? I kind of think so. However, the lines–particularly the second one–are rather abstract, and I think might come across to some readers as trying too hard to be poetic. I think we writers, particularly fantasy writers, have a similar problem along this vein with simply using too many words to explain things. Our descriptions get too long, our narrative internal monologues stretch for pages (my particular foible) and we have trouble telling a story in less than a five book series.
It’s a crutch, I think, that a lot of us use. Are we going to change? I doubt it. I know I didn’t cut that line from Mistborn 2, even though my instincts said that I should have. In addition, you have a lot of authors writing prose that IS beautiful. It distracts from their stories, in my opinion, but books like that aren’t always about the story. (One doesn’t read A HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE to find out what’s going to happen. They read it for the language.)
Either way, that’s why this concept lands at number eight on the bad elements of storytelling in which we pros continue to indulge. There is something about poetic writing that has gained credibility in literary fields above and beyond the value of a well told story. Even those of us who argue for the power of a good story still feel the need to prove ourselves, occasionally, through our language. Even if we’re not as practiced at it as others.
Next item on the countdown will probably be on Monday, though I might throw one up on Saturday. Sorry for the lack of post on Thursday!