Sunday, March 18, 2012

Saying a Lot with Few Words (Part 1)

Today, my wife and I are doing a cross-post on the same subject just like we did back when we discussed descriptions from different perspectives.

When writing, you need to be able to say a lot with as few words as possible. This applies at the macro level and the micro level. My current work in progress is a Young Adult story. Depending on who you ask, the target word count for a YA is between 40,000 and 80,000 words. I'm personally aiming for 80,000 words or less. Lengthy scenes can be nice, but they add up quickly. There are two ways to cut down on length. You can cut scenes and you can learn to cut down on scene length by saying a lot in few words. Today, I'm going to talk about some of the macro tricks behind this. My wife will be talking about this from her perspective over on her blog today as well, so be sure to check out what she hasto say on the subject.

First of all, I should explain what I mean by saying a lot in as few words as possible.  On the macro level, what I'll be talking about today, this is making a scene as short as possible without cutting into the story.  On the micro level, this is stating something to the reader without needless exposition.  The best authors are experts at both of these tricks.  They can avoid the exposition or unnecessary dialogue and can keep scenes short, and to the point.

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 In my current novel, my protagonist, Peter, is a fourteen year old who can teleport. For various reasons, he is trying to track down and catch an arsonist. In the story, he ends up in France where he meets a girl named Claire. Claire becomes the second person to discover his ability. In the scene when Claire and Peter meet and talk, there are several ways that I've cut the length of what I've needed to say to keep this event to part of a single chapter instead of two or three.  In order to achieve this, I replaced what would have been an entire chapter with a single, critical piece of dialogue between the two characters. I cut descriptions of the scene, leaving the less important descriptions for the reader to fill in. The scene involved Claire's angry father; he was minimized. I also used the ever important trick of not rehashing what the reader already knows. You'd be surprised how effective it is to write: “Peter told Claire what he knew about the fires.”

For a more specific example, I'll examine my choice not to spend much time describing Claire. I prescribe to the formula of cutting down descriptions of characters to a minimum and letting the reader fill in the rest of the details. I focus on what the character notices first, the details that stand out the most, and the unusual details. This might be long flowing black hair, bright green eyes, freckles, or, in the case of Claire, her unusual style of dress. I never spend time describing every last detail of the character and even when I'm describing something unusual, I keep it simple and focused on Peter's story.

Writing about tricks on how to say a lot in a little words isn't quite the same as showing the process. At this point in time, I'm describing a scene that takes place a few weeks after the chapter mentioned above. Peter is at home when his mother calls him out of his bedroom. Peter has just received a package from Claire and his mother is trying to find out what's going on.

NOTE: This is draft writing. I don't like sharing draft writing and it is all subject to change. Don't judge.

This was the last line I wrote:
“Why are you getting packages from England?”
To proceed, I need to figure out what needs to be covered in this scene. First off, Peter is entering the scene confused. I like to torture my characters and it's important that Peter find himself thrust, repeatedly into scenes where he needs to adapt quickly. He doesn't know what this package is, who it is from, or why he's getting it. So the first thing I need to have to do in this scene is have Peter go through the process of figuring out what is going on. The second element needed is to have Peter lie to his mother and feel guilty for having done so. Finally, I need to maintain a bit of dramatic tension. Peter's pursuit of the arsonist is getting intense.

I could respond to this question with extensive dialogue between Peter and his mom.  However, this adds a lot of information of the course of several paragraphs when I can handle this quickly, maintain Peter's character, and hit all three of the requirements I'm looking for above.

I froze. The arsonist had seen me at my father's work. He might know where I live. This could be the very means he used to start fires. My mom's life could be in danger. I bit my lip and walked over to where my mom stood with the package. I couldn't get a clear view of the package, but I did get a glimpse of the label. The writing on the front was too flowery to have been from someone trying to burn down homes. This had to have been from Claire. I had forgotten she had said something about attending a private school in England. She had asked for my addressed when we last spoke, but I hadn't expected her to mail me a package.
“It must be from my pen pal,” I lied. I felt a jab of pain in my heart, lying to my mom again like that. “I write to her as part of my make-up work for school. I don't know why she sent me a package from England.”
My mother looked at me with dubious eyes, but finally a smile appeared on her face. “You never told me you had a pen pal.”
She handed me her package and left the room with the rest of the mail in her hand, leaving me alone to find out what Claire had sent me.

This scene is 232 words in length and covers what could take over a thousand words to explain. Even still, it is longer than I'd like and will likely get shortened later when I go through and make further edits. It covers all three areas I wanted to touch upon, and leaves me satisfied.  I'd like to note that the main area I cut a lot was with his mom's reaction.  She could have probed to find out more.  She could have lingered to find out what was in the package.  Instead, she adds a bit of guilt by not responding immediately with believing Peter before wandering off.  It easily saved a thousand words.

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