Thursday, June 18, 2009

When Less Becomes More

Focus. Focus. Focus.

I've learned a lot about focus lately. In fact, I'm so serious about focus that I threw out the latest draft of my novel and completely started over. I'm on page 50, a point in the story that I didn't reach in my previous draft until page 170. Focus.

Plot and Character Focus
Your reader is only going to see the picture you paint. If you describe a character’s shirt, does it have something to do with the story or the character? Or did you describe the shirt because it makes a pretty image in your head - and you wanted to show the reader? Relevant details are essential. Extraneous details pull things out of focus. The same goes for scenes and characters.

One of the things I like to do is shave down my story to its barest essentials. Break down every chapter, scene, and character into one short sentence. For example:

Chapter 1 (the trip from the train station) - Margaret sees the poverty of the town she is being forced to live in, and it frightens her.

John (secondary character) - The character who influences Margaret’s decision not to leave the town.

I’ve done this with my current draft, and ended up combining two characters into one character (they served the same purpose), deleted one character from the picture altogether (he’s still in the story, but we never see him), and cut about 20 scenes from the book (they were extraneous - their purpose was better told in two scenes)

Sentence-Level Focus
I’ll be bold here and say that every. single. word. counts.

Like the details I discussed above, if you narrow your focus onto every sentence and ask what it adds to the story, you’ll see what I mean. In my draft, I’m doing this as I write - editing as I go. I’ll write a sentence, ask myself what it adds to the forward action, to the development of the character, to the picture as a whole. If it feels weak and out of focus, I either rewrite it or cut it. (Be sure to read Davin's excellent post from yesterday about building important details into your sentences.)

Mostly, however, I’ve found that extraneous phrases are the culprit of weak sentences. For instance:

He shifted the truck in reverse and pulled out of the parking lot. A narrow, rutted road led behind the boathouse, past the inn, and to the other side of the lake.

I changed it to:

He backed out of the parking lot and followed the narrow, rutted road to the other side of the lake.

This is a necessary sentence to the scene. The reader needs to know that the character drove to the other side of the lake. Now, I could simply say: He drove to the other side of the lake - but that’s not my style. Don’t confuse style or voice with fluff.

Question Of The Day: Do you find yourself focusing on the wrong things in your story? How do you fix this problem?

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. Well said! I think it is easier said than done, and it takes me a lot of review, stepping back, asking myself the 'too wordy' question to keep my work on the lean side.

    Great reminder today...thanks :D

  2. I do this all the time! The unfocusing bit, I mean. It's true that sometimes you just don't need a character, or else you need that character to DO something in the novel. I add a lot of details that aren't important, like the color of T-shirts. How did you know that?? Ha ha! I'm working on it. Always working on it.

    Good luck with your rewrites. :)

  3. Michelle: Excellent post. I think a lot of times we clog up our stories and our prose with junk, and it's hard to see how to clean it up. In early drafts, I tend to overcomplicate things at the sentence level: "He wanted to be able to thank her for what she'd tried to do for him." That should be "He wanted to thank her." Similarly, the story gets gunked up with extra gobs of stuff, too. Multiple characters who all serve the same purpose, long and rambling scenes that can be condensed, that sort of thing.

    The danger is that you can go too far in this direction, and cut out too much, leaving nothing but a sketchy summary of the story. It's some tricky to find a comfortable balance. I fight an internal battle between clarity and dense, ornamented language. I don't know where my balance point is; it's a constant struggle.

  4. Pursue the tangents. Then edit.
    You never know where you might end up.

  5. This is a struggle for me as well. I keep wanting to put more in, but I know that it's too much. Wordy me. It's funny. I never thought of myself as wordy until I started trying to write a novel. Now I know. The problem is finding the right balance. Like Scott said, "it's a constant struggle."

  6. Tess: You're welcome! I agree that this is easier said than done. Believe me, I know all too well the pain from cutting a beautiful scene that doesn't add anything to the story. Most of the time, the scene contains one tiny grain of importance, and I try to put that in somewhere else.

    Elana: Haha, I knew you used lots of details like the color of T-shirts because I do the same thing! Oftentimes colors mean specific things in my story, so I have to be very carefuly about where I place those colors.

    Scott: Thank you. Yes, I do think it is tricky to find a comfortable balance. What I've found, however, is that even outlining a story to death still doesn't help me with this. I have to just write it all and then go back and cut. Do you find the same thing happening with your writing? Because I know you outline a lot!

    Funny how the actual writing process changes things.

    Orange Cat: Oh, I'm with you ALL the way! This is my third third novel, and I'm discovering that my first draft is usually an experiement - like a huge complicated outline. It works best to throw the thing out and write a second one from scratch. Why? Because that first draft was where I followed tangents and discovered amazing things! I'm not sure if every novel will be this way, but it's how things have worked so far.

    Lois: I think one of the keys to finding that balance is realizing the improtance of a well-placed word, phrase, sentence, scene, character... Oftentimes I feel like I have to drive a point home, when in reality, once I've said "blue" the reader will remember "blue" - I don't have to explain three more times in the next five pages. If that makes sense. :)

  7. I'm currently focusing on conflict, trying to increase the tension in every scene. It's a bit tense for me, as well as for the characters, but I think it'll work out in the end. If not, I can ride uncle's coattails to glory! Writing's a team sport!

  8. For me, your last point is my biggest obstacle. Don't confuse style with fluff. I tend to cut things down to the bare bones, and most often, the criticism I get is that my writing feels too rushed, perhaps to focused. My first writing teacher told me to create some room to breathe for the reader. I think it can be quite difficult to make decisions like this sometimes. We want the story to be rich, but not flowery.

  9. Scott's comment makes me want to wash my manuscript with soap and water.

  10. Justus: If it's tense for you now, I think it'll probably work out!

    Davin: The thing to remember is what works for YOU and the STORY. If you like the way the story is focused and how it feels, don't add more just to please those who want more. When I first read your work, I had to get used to what you were doing - that didn't mean it was bad or too sparse; it's your style. However, if you get criticism that the story feels empty or that it doesn't make sense because you are missing certain details, then you might be running into a problem.

    A lot of times, I think the difference between rich and flowery is repetition. I do this too much - the extra gunk I'm always trying to get rid of.

    Yes, Scott's comment makes me feel the same way. Just don't give your story an acid bath, haha.

  11. It is super hard to find the balance with showing too much and too little. Knowing our scene goals can really help us focus.

  12. What do you mean fluff isn't the same thing as style? ;)

    Yeah, this is where I have to work hard to trim down to basics. My first drafts are always overwritten and gobbed with needless detail. But hey, that's what first drafts are for.

  13. Excellent post! I will started editing my WIP soon and need to focus. Like Jody though, I think there is a fine line between saying too much and saying too little. It feels like walking on a balance beam.

  14. Effective imagery! Yay, me! But good point, Davin, about not confusing style with fluff. We aren't obligated to reduce everything down to subject-verb-object sentences and scrub all the beauty and/or wildness from our prose.

    You have a very lean style that I like. It's clear, but not in any way bloodless. If you take my meaning.

  15. Things do get out of focus from time to time. My first draft tends to be sparing with details. The second draft always has too many. And somewhere about draft 5 I get the balance right and can then work on making sure the emphasis on certain things is right.

    It's hard for me because sometimes I need to underline a detail without actually hitting the reader over the head with it. A significant answer, foreshadowing, or a clue to the mystery that needs to be ephemeral but ever-present.

    And that's why I'm still editing, not published. It happens.

  16. I admit that I have a hard time focusing. Fluff is so much fun!

  17. This topic has actually been on my mind lately. I'm reading Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. He opens the story by minutely describing two relatively minor characters. And by minutely, I mean down to the name of the hapless beast whose hide now composes their footwear. Okay, maybe not that minutely. But still! Jane Austen, on the other hand, hardly describes her characters physical appearance at all, and yet I had clear pictures of many of them, even before seeing any film adaptations. (I love Jennifer Ehle, but I still mentally picture Lizzy as a blonde!)

    Despite the ample descriptions Sir Walter Scott gives his characters, I find Austen's more memorable. If you let the reader paint their own picture, it will often be more vivid than one you painstakingly try to describe to them. In this case, less is definitely more!

  18. Glass Dragon,

    Perhaps so, but I think the "less is more" policy works best with human characters; fantasy beasts and races are more difficult to visualize for the average person.

  19. Love the post. The green shirt part really hit me...I'll need to go back through to make sure my character is noticing as much or as little as would be appropriate for her.


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