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Art of the unspoken: saying more by describing less

Kelly, a newscaster, lured by newspaper stories of the tragedy, is visiting a small town some months after a fire swept through the local nursery school. She strikes up a conversation with a woman called Pat, and discovers through it that Pat is the town's news reporter. The conversation continues:

    "You must have been the one to cover that big fire a few months back," Kelly realised.
    Pat's mouth tightened to a thin line. "Yes," she said in a constricted voice.
    Kelly, poised on the verge of asking further questions about the tragedy, hesitated when she saw Pat's obvious reluctance to speak further and, instead of the question she intended to ask, quickly substituted, "So, how long have you been working as a reporter for the Bugle?"

In this section, we see two characters interacting and learn something about them. Pat remains traumatised by her experience and is reticent about it. Kelly is empathetic to other people's moods and does not push in against someone's distress. Two sensitive people, yet the language is not sensitive. It clunks against our heads like a lead pipe. The writer has told us too much and we become impatient, wanting to yell, 'Okay, okay, we get it!'

The purpose of clean, lean, stylish prose is to tell the story in a satisfying way. A good writer does not hum and haw, does not repeat information, does not bore her readers. Instead, she draws her readers into the story, letting them feel the action viscerally.

Good writing is like Occam's razor, the fewest possible words achieving the greatest possible meaning. This is done two ways: first, by removing everything unnecessary and, second, by achieving precision through combining what is happening with the way it is happening.

If you are a genius, you achieve this sort of graceful prose in your first draft. If you are merely human, you achieve it by rethinking, refining, and rewriting. You work until nothing else can be cut or altered without risking the full meaning of the content or damaging the narrative flow.

Let's look at the snippet of dialogue above. How do you turn that mediocre prose into dynamic language? You start by pruning. Here is the same passage with some padding removed:

    "You must have been the one to cover that big fire here."
    Pat's mouth tightened. "Yes."
    Kelly, about to launch further questions, hesitated when she saw Pat's obvious reluctance to speak. Instead of the question she intended to ask, she quickly substituted, "So, how long have you been working for the Bugle?"

This tells us, but with fewer words, what the first version did. The passage reads more smoothly, yet you see that your work is not yet done. You must cut more and rewrite that clumsy last section:

    "You must have been the one to cover that big fire."
    Pat's mouth tightened. "Yes."
    Kelly saw Pat's obvious reluctance to speak and, instead of the question she intended to ask, quickly substituted, "So, how long have you been working for the Bugle?"

The action is starting to get close to 'real time', the actual pace of a real conversation, but you sense that you can do better still. You have pruned; now you must combine. Pat is laconic. Her 'yes' changes the direction of Kelly's questions. Why not let the reader feel the impact of the question? It doesn't need the prop of the preceding words. You cut those words. You also consider Kelly's first question. Is that how she would say it, or did you write it that way because you thought we wouldn't 'get it', and so slipped in a little elucidation? Trust us: we 'get it'.

    "You must have covered that fire."
    "Yes."

Now that the first part makes us feel impact of Pat's monosyllable, the last sentence feels sloppy and too long. It takes longer for us to read it than it does Kelly to think it. You want to show the quickness of Kelly's response in the quickness of your writing style:

    "You must have covered that fire."
    "Yes."
     Kelly sensed Pat's obvious reluctance to speak. Instead of her intended question, Kelly quickly substituted, "So, how long have you been working for the Bugle?"

You are still describing too much. We have already seen Pat's obvious reluctance in her terse 'yes', so Kelly seems three paces behind us. Then we have to wait two whole clauses to see Kelly's supposedly quick, sensitive change of direction. Kelly's response has to be as adroit a change of direction for the reader as it is for her. You rewrite and finally you get it:

    "You must have covered that fire."
    "Yes," said Pat in a way that made Kelly ask instead, "So, how long have you been at the Bugle?"

Your reader, like your character, turns on a dime and heads in a different direction.

By thinking about what is happening and mirroring that action in your style, you have been able to strip out all superfluity and have made the passage a better reading experience. You have moved into the narrative instead of describing it.

You don't have to spell everything out, hit every nail on the head, cross every t and dot every i: we get it. Trust us.

Copyright Caro Clarke - www.caroclarke.com