I thought I’d pulled a fast one at the writers’ group last week. For their assignment I challenged the gang to write a story no longer than 100 words. The people who sometimes claim they didn’t have time to finish their stories were particularly pleased.
“Oh, that’s easy!” Ana-Marie said. Then she counted how those words looked on a page.
“Hang about,” she said, “That’s only a couple of paragraphs.”
We spent the next twenty minutes discussing flash fiction. What it is, how it works. The gang are going to try my bonkers exercise and see how they get on. I’m curious to see the results.
The reason I wanted them to try this is because writers need to understand the importance of selecting the right details. With only 100 words at their disposal, the gang will have to weigh each one carefully. I suspect most of them will start with a story much longer than 100 words, and then start to whittle it down. All of those “He saids,” will be the first to go, followed by adjectives and adverbs.
Of course, the point isn’t simply what you leave out; what you decide to keep is what makes the story. The writer must be careful not to strip all the colour from the prose. The reader must still be able to enter the world of the story.
I remember reading an exercise for writers many years ago that suggested the writer imagine they have to pay for every single word they spend. Uh, use. Imagine it’s a telegram, was the suggestion. It obviously resonated with me since I remember it all these years later. Of course, I eventually learned that even a novel of 500 pages should still contain only essential words. Here are some suggestions for trimming the dross:
Instead of writing generalities, keep to specific examples. For instance, don’t write ‘small car,’ try ‘Fiat’, or some other exact model. Write ‘cobra’ instead of deadly snake, or cottage instead of small country house. Not only are you saving your word count, but you’re planting a more exact picture in your reader’s mind.
Waffle No More
These are the passages that go on at length about the hero waking in the morning, showering in his cold, white bathroom, shaving his chiseled chin — he’s a hero; of course he has a chiseled chin — and selecting one of three crisp white shirts, the one with the mother-of-pearl buttons, and the blue tie that perfectly matched his eyes… Seriously?
Every word needs to add to the story. It should reveal the character in specific, vivid detail. Generic scenes such as your man shaving really add nothing of value. Well, maybe if he were a haemophiliac and accidentally cut himself, but even in that case, it’s the detail, the disease, that sets your hero apart from all the other fine-boned heroes.
This brings us to those long passages of descriptions. I swear, there is a circle of literary hell for those people who have a heroine gaze at her reflection in the mirror and tell us what she sees. The raven tresses, snub nose, stubborn chin, etc. There are so many things wrong with this. For instance:
- No one cares.
- Perfection is boring.
- These details tell you zero, zip, zilch about the character.
- Real people don’t gaze at themselves in the mirror and see raven tresses, etc. They see the weak chin, the grey roots, the bloodshot eyes.
- The gazing in the mirror thing is SO cliched.
If you really must describe a character, pick those details that sums him up. The way he walks, the way he behaves, the impact he has on the people around him. Here’s Dickens, the master of description (if a bit windy at times) describing Mr Bounderby in Hard Times:
He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him… A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.
As you can see, there’s nothing here about the character’s features or his hair, and yet we can see him clearly. Dickens often waffles, but every word in this description tells us who Mr Bounderby is.
The Cecil B de Mille Approach
Cecil B de Mille was a film director in the early days of Hollywood. He was famous for making pictures that had hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the cast. I have to be honest, this is something I struggle with. I love creating characters and I often have a lot in my novels. However, a story really shouldn’t have any more characters than are absolutely essential. If the character has no more than one scene, either replace them with a more weighty character, or give them something more to do. This is particularly true of short stories or flash fiction. In fact, if you try to squeeze more than two characters into a story that runs less than a thousand words, you’re probably not going to do justice to any of them. Less really is more.
You Won’t Get There All At Once
Precision in language takes time, repeated editing, and a lot of work. You’ll have to keep whittling it down to make it work. It’s worth it, though. Give it a try and see.