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I said this recently to a writer in workshop reacting spontaneously to the wonderful story I could see trapped behind the bars of overly condensed description.

This kind of thing happens a lot.  Rushing to make our point, we summarize and condense the life out of our stories.  Instead of allowing our language to expand and transport us somewhere unexpected, we harness it for our predetermined goals. This approach works well for reports, memos and academic papers but not so well for literary writing.


Pulitzer Prize winning author, Robert Olen Butler, writes that:

Fiction is the art form of human yearning.  That is absolutely essential to any work of fictional narrative art -- a character who yearns.  And that is not the same as a character who simply has problems..... that yearning is at the heart of all temporal art forms.

The same idea holds equally true for poetry, memoir and to a certain extent, the essay: the reader needs to connect at an intimate level with the driving force within the narrator.  Otherwise, they won't care.

Consider the author's use of verbs & imagery in this excerpt from Janet Fitch's "Oleander"

In the afternoon, the editor descended on the art room, dragging scarves of Oriental perfume that lingered in the air long after she was gone.  A thin woman with overbright eyes and the nervous gestures of a frightened bird, Kit smiled too widely in her red lipstick as she darted here and there, looking at the design, examining pages, stopping to read type over my mother's shoulder, and pointing out corrections.  My mother flipped her hair back, a cat twitching before it clawed you.

"All that hair," Kit said.  "Isn't it dangerous in your line of work? Around the waxer and all." Her own hairstyle was geometric, dyed an inky black and shaved at the neck.

My mother ignored her, but let the X-acto fall so it impaled the desktop like a javelin.

Notice how the editor doesn't walk into the room but 'descended........dragging scarves of Oriental perfume that lingered"  She never walks, in fact, she 'darts' like a 'frightened bird' intruding on everyone's space.

In contrast, the narrator's mother 'flipped her hair back, a cat twitching before it clawed you.'

Evocative use of verbs & image economically sets up the tension of this moment.

You won't necessarily find the clearest, most potent language in the 1st or 2nd drafts of your piece though you probably will find a few jewels buried in the clutter of ideas.  So where to start?

The best place to begin is by sketching out the fundamental idea(s) you want to convey in this particular moment or scene. Not just the obvious stuff but the subtle, nuances that brings tension to your story.  The below-the-surface tension that isn't being spoken.

Don't try to be fancy or literary here.  Just talk to yourself about the story you have in mind.  Sort out your thoughts reviewing any pertinent details, particular memories and unanswered questions.  Later, as the story begins to clarify in your  mind, you can begin to play with the language.

Consider the difference between these two sentences:

Allie woke her boyfriend up.  VS  Allie poked her boyfriend awake.

The 1st sentence is neutral, purely informational.  The second version conveys some attitude. Whether this attitude is playful or irritable, we don't know yet but the author has put us on alert.

The more you understand the underlying hidden dynamics of your story, the more effectively you will use your language.

 

 

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