We are writers. Our words are our hearts spilled on the page. Our stories often becoming our babies. It takes a lot of care and planning to birth a story. But while all kiddos need love and nurturing, they also need discipline.
A common behavioral disorder that hinders the potential of beautiful storytelling is something called over-writing. (Over-directing is also a sneaky little hitch-hiking virus that can flatten your tires.)
Over-writing is an ailment that comes very natural to me. I get caught up in the scenery, in the senses (both important), but while I’m whipping up a tasty little turn of phrase (or two, or three to really ramp up the magic) the rest of the concoction I was stirring up for the main course sours.
Because I recognize this as a weakness I make a conscious effort to prop up the baby-gate before I tumble down the stairs and mangle my story.
Here's how you can too...
Trim the fat. Close your eyes and envision your scene. Very often utilizing all five of your senses will insert your reader into the storyworld you created. But explaining every detail down to the color of the rug on the floor and the pattern of drapes on the windows doesn’t necessarily create atmosphere. Play up the details that create a feeling as you visualize them. Which ones stir your senses? Which ones don’t? Trim the excess and trust the reader to fill in those gaps. Sometimes it’s important to see your heroine wrapped in that hand-knitted heirloom afghan, staring thought the crackling fire, self-medicating with a cup of hot chocolate, dreaming of a love like the her grandparents who overcame everything to be together. The scene can invoke a feeling, and you’ll spend less time in those draggy introspective paragraphs. Other times it’s enough to know she’d simply snuggled up on the couch, nursing a broken heart with the world best remedy. Chocolate. But be aware that fat-free chocolate probably isn't very appealing either. Leave enough marbled in to give it flavor. Snip the rest. Lean and mean!
It’s okay to tell. (But don’t tell anyone I told you.) Think about those two examples above. The first is overly descriptive and showy, you could almost see the scene in a Hallmark movie. The other is understated but gives you the pertinent information so you can move on to the action. Sure, we’ve all heard the rule, show don’t tell. But showing a whole story is not only impossible, but really, really tedious. With things of little consequence, don’t dawdle. We really don’t need to know the way he dragged the towel through his wet hair unless the heroine is intensely preoccupied with the process. More than likely she’s more focused on the beads of water trailing her eyes to more interesting scenery than the blue striped towel you felt compelled to dwell on. (Sorry, not so G-rated here but we’re all adults, right?) The point is, determine when you need to show, and when it’s more effective to tell. (And when to cut all together!)
Actions speak louder than words. Yes, now we are into what is called over-directing. I’ve read a lot of stories where they dictate each characters movements like staging a play. In a production, it’s important to know your position on the stage, the choreography of your movements, your entrance and exit points, ect. You really don’t want to upstage a primadonna, trust me, been there. But in a book you don’t have to waste words explaining every pace of motion, every hand gesture, nor every fidget or throat-clear… UNLESS it informs the reader of unspoken emotions.
For example, crossing ones arms is a clear defense mechanism. If your character does this while in a heated rant with the hero, she’s protecting herself. Therefore, you can skip saying she rose to the defensive because her body language speaks clearly. Just like a jutting hip or poke in the chest is more antagonistic. When the actions speak, you don’t have to explain their intention. This will save you words and will let your reader know you trust them enough to draw the right conclusions. At the same time, I don’t need to see a volley of activity. He crossed his arms, she shifted her weight, he shrugged his shoulders, she tapped her foot, sighed, tossed her hair, and narrowed her eyes. Be picky. Make your actions count for more than simple movement. Let them enlighten your reader. And leave out the place-keepers that cut up the dialogue with unnecessary staging.
Don’t get too attached. Ooo, this one is tough. This is my baby, remember? It’s kind of like that first haircut, and you just want to save all those feathery soft pieces. Yes, your words are valuable. After all, they ALL come together to create your story. But some, you’ll come to find, are necessary. Some are less so. Know your genre and be sure to consider the pace. Romance, women’s fiction, and historicals can have a more relaxed cadence. Thrillers, suspense, and mystery gotta keep the clip or they lose the reader. Though you never want a muddy plot! I write romantic suspense, which can be tricky. Sometimes it’s appropriate to stop and smell the roses, other times those buds are getting trampled under the pursuit of a killer, so if you stop, you die. Make sense? As a general rule of thumb I recommend reading your story out loud. (To another person is immensely helpful, though not always realistic.) You’d be surprised by the lull you’ll find when you are dragging your voice through each word. Pay attention and put your pride on the shelf.
Over-writing can be fatal. Many a good story has died a slow and painful death to the trappings of a draggy pace. Now, I’m off to go heed my own advice. Go exercise those trimming sheers. Snip, snip. You’ll thank me later!
YOUR TURN: Are you an over-writer? Where do you notice you over-do it? Plot points? Descriptions? Actions? Staging? Knowing your weakness can be the best defense against it.
Edit happy! Your story is shaping up!
Amy Leigh Simpson writes Romantic Suspense that is heavy on the romance, unapologetically honest, laced with sass and humor, and full of the unfathomable Grace of God. She is the completely sleep deprived mama to two little tow-headed mischief makers and wife to her very own swoon-worthy hero. Represented by the oh-so-wise and dashing Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary Inc.