Tag Archives: redundancy

A small bit of descriptive writing guidance

My current read is a series by an author with a significant body of work. For me some of his presentation flaws are less important than the overall storyline, which I like. I bookmarked a spot that I could sanitize into a useful example of what not to do, and what to do instead.

Rarely do I approve of constructions such as “he felt.” When possible we should always be showing rather than telling. What is worse: telling when we are already showing, thus creating redundancy as well as awkwardness. (One could even make the case that it insults the reader’s intellect. [“Put it back!” she sobbed. She felt sad. ] Well, duh; that’s usually why people sob. Does the au think readers are too stupid to infer that?)

Dialogue tags are often key to avoiding the need for overt description of sentiment. While the conventional wisdom is that everyone said or asked, more descriptive tags have their moments. Actions described alongside them can also make extra telling unnecessary–and that’s what we want. The context is maritime, age of sail and scurvy. Here’s a sample:

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As usual, Montoya chose to be pessimistic. “And the sick ones?”

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped. He was becoming irritated by the Spaniard’s bad moods.

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What’s wrong with this? A few things. First–looking last–is ‘he was becoming irritated.’ Better to say that he found the Spaniard’s moods irritating. We might safely assume that they are bad, since good moods are unlikely to irritate, and it happens Montoya’s attitude is well established in the story. But we won’t need to edit it, because it’s not coming with us. More important here is the inept/excess description. We don’t need to say that Montoya is usually pessimistic, because if that is true, this is already well established. One could then say:

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“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.

===

What did we lose? Nothing. Especially in light of what will remain of the next part, which should end after ‘snapped.’ This can work because Montoya’s attitude problem is a long-known reality to the reader, and the dialogue tag ‘snapped’ conveys all the irritation the reader needs. So we get:

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“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped.

===

Quicker, cleaner, no longer redundant, and allows the previous storyline and tone to carry the mail. We got rid of one full sentence and most of another. We drop from 42 words to 28–a one-third reduction.

This is why editors tend to shorten mss rather than lengthen them. Even seasoned authors tend to over-describe, and novices tend toward it all the more. And that’s okay, provided they have and heed competent editorial guidance. One can tell when this did not occur, and it can make a great story read average, or an average story read badly.

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