This week’s blog ties directly into last week’s “Bad Words” post. I gave some examples of ways to remove words, like “was” and “very,” from your prose, and some of the reasons you should definitely do so. In a direct follow up, I’d like to talk about other ways to tidy prose and make your flow smoother and tighter.
One of the first rules I gave when I started this blog was this: narrate events in the order they occurred. If you look at The Issues She Had Had, or if you read it back when I first posted, you’ll recall that you never want to be catching your reader up or jerking them around. If you give a clear, concise, and chronological account of what happened, your reader will follow and not be stuck trying to put together puzzle pieces.
The next thing is, of course, to cut down on “extra” words (like “very” and “was”), but here are a few more shortcuts:
had to/needed to/wanted to = must
thought about = considered
Lastly, of course, is to eliminate your modifiers and intensifiers (it’s not “extremely hot,” it’s “sweltering”).
Just these rules can help you trim the fat down on a sentence. Let’s put them together.
Example 1: She put the bread that she cut after it finished baking into a bowl, which she had scrubbed very clean that morning, after her mother left from their teatime date, and she set the bowl on the table next to the cheeses she had prepared. There was a fresh pitcher of water on the table, as well.
This may read as an extreme example, but I see sentences like this in prose constantly! (all the time = constantly) What happened is this: the author (in this case, myself) wanted to jump straight into an action, but (let’s pretend for these examples) the rest of the information was also relevant to the scene. It’s been haphazardly interjected into the sentence, explaining away any questions the reader might have about how the bowl got clean, when she found time to clean it, and so on.
Let’s start with my first suggestion, which is to rearrange events in the order they occurred. I’ve broken this down into steps before, so I won’t waste page space doing that again. Let’s move on and put our reader into the current moment, eliminating “had,” then let’s nix the modifiers and passive “was” in the last sentence.
I’m also going to include a little more information, in order for some of the details to have a little more life beyond merely existing. After I’ve fiddled and brainstormed, my new paragraph should read like this:
Example 2: After their weekly, morning teatime, she bade farewell to her mother. Once alone, she brought the soiled ceramic bowl to the sink and scrubbed it spotless, until it squeaked under her wet finger. She set it aside to dry as she prepared a tray of cheeses. Bread cool enough to cut, she sliced it into eight even, thin pieces. She fetched a pitcher of fresh water and placed it upon the table, finished drying the bowl, placed the bread within, and laid that on the table to join the water and cheese.
I’ve made several modifications here, including varying my sentence length and structure, making different elements into the subject of each sentence, and breaking up thoughts/actions. I’ve broken the sequence of events into its core elements, then built it back up, in order, while adding some melody to the narrative.
Below, I’m going to take some bits from the earliest stages of my current WIP and whittle them down to the basics to make them flow and sing!
Example 3: At the front of the Sectional Chief’s office was a huge, oak desk. It was modestly adorned with a single wilting flower in a glass vase, a small jar of assorted marbles, and a framed award facing the door. On the other side of the desk was a bulky desktop computer, and behind that computer was an attractive girl with red hair and bright eyes.
From an editor’s perspective, I immediately spot a multitude of issues in this paragraph. I’m going to shave off all the extra parts and see what we are left with.
Example 4: At the front of the Sectional Chief’s office sat an oak desk, modestly adorned with a single, wilting flower, a small jar of assorted marbles, and a framed award. Stationed on the other end: a bulky, desktop computer. An attractive girl with red hair and bright eyes manned it.
What I’ve done is cut this down to its barest parts. I took away every “was,” which not only forced an active voice but also a variety in sentence types, structures, and lengths. Now that I’ve cut out the problematic elements, I can build it back up with more interesting and compelling aspects.
Example 5: The Sectional Chief’s office housed only an oak desk near the entrance, standing on clawed feet and modestly adorned with a wilting flower in a small glass vase, a small jar of dusty, assorted marbles, and an equally-dusty framed award. At the opposite end, and much in fashion with the neglected baubles, sat a large, yellowing desktop computer. A girl with red hair and bright eyes ticked away at the bulky keyboard.
Cutting out the extra bits of the original paragraph gave me more room to add details, without becoming repetitive or ever taking on a passive voice. I’ve given myself the opportunity to show a little bit about the setting; everything is old, and dusty, and the reader is free to take what they wish from that paragraph. I don’t have to tell them much about it, because I’ve lain out the picture! This also serves as a good transition point into the conversation between my MC and the girl behind the desk. She can look up at him and initiate conversation, he can be required to call her attention, or they can even have no interaction at all, establishing her as part of the scenery without making a fuss over it.
Let’s keep going with this game!
Example 6: He hadn’t really needed to write it down. Lionidas knew those numbers and names by heart. He’d studied them daily since receiving them three weeks prior to arriving in Kansas City. It was two weeks before he graduated, so he probably could have used the brainpower elsewhere, but this day was a huge one for Lionidas.
Problems in Example 6:
Past participle (hadn’t needed to)
Telling instead of showing (this day was a huge one for Lionidas)
Giving information out of order (I can’t even break this one down in parenthesis because it’s the whole paragraph)
Let’s trim it down!
Example 7: Lionidas knew the names and numbers by heart. Three weeks prior to arriving in Kansas City, the interview information arrived. He studied it daily. He could probably have used the brainpower elsewhere, like preparing for his graduation in two weeks, but he found himself glancing back at the information, imprinting it so there was no possibility for him to forget.
While this eliminates some of the comprehension struggles, I find it quite boring to read. It’s just a slew of information with no meaning attached. Let’s breathe some life into Lionidas!
Example 8: Even as Lionidas recalled the time and place of his interview from memory, he kept glancing down at the paper in his hands. A little voice insisted that he would forget a small detail, and that one detail would be his undoing. He would be late, he would arrive in the wrong office, he would ask for the wrong agent – Lio closed his eyes and willed his anxieties down. Three weeks ago, those dates and names arrived in his email inbox. He looked at them daily, read them aloud, and wrote them down time and again. He definitely should have spent that time and energy studying. Even on his graduation day, Lio read the details. He poured over practice interviews, drafted every question and response. His brothers and sisters depended on him to make a good impression. The day finally arrived, and Lio still looked at his notes, one last reminder, before making his way to the elevator and stepping inside.
This is undeniably longer than the 6th example above. What I’ve done is swap out the useless junk for substance. Instead of telling you what matters to Lio, I’m showing you, by recounting his actions, thoughts, and showing body language to accompany.
You can apply these notes to any part of your WIP right now, I wager! Your assignment this week is to take clunky or boring pieces of dialogue and action, cut them down using the methods you learned here today, then strengthen them with important, emotional details. I’d love to see your progress in the comments section!
Have a wonderful week, everyone! Next Sunday I’ll write about “Said” and its alternatives, and when/where/why you might use them (or *not* use them)!
Update: If you have a small section of WIP (3-5 lines) that you would like help with, or to see how I might restructure it, paste it in the comment section!
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