Essential writing skills: stripping out the language

One of the best ways to make your fiction writing compelling is to leave gaps that the reader then has to work to fill. This draws them deeper into your material.

Wright_Typewriter2The question is what to leave out. And it seems to me that a lot can be done by dropping speech identifiers and the adverbs that get added around them. Instead of ‘he said’, ‘she said’, try not identifying speakers at all. It has to be done judiciously, but the context and individual ‘voice’ of a speaker should be sufficient to identify who’s speaking, most of the time.

Similarly, the tone of words chosen for them to speak should also show the emotion behind it – you shouldn’t have to tell the reader; they should pick it up from the speaker’s words, if necessary by adding a couple of clues into the writing.

Check this out (I can write this pastiche because Conan Doyle’s pre-1925 work was declared public domain):

Great Scott, Holmes!’ Watson said forcefully ‘how the devil did you know that?’
‘My dear Watson, it was an elementary deduction,’ Holmes replied smoothly.
‘How so?’ asked Watson quizzically.

The identifiers and most of the adverbs are unnecessary. We know Watson spoke forcefully from the words, and we know he was puzzled, so we don’t have to spell it out. Each speaker also named the other – a trick Conan Doyle used, himself, to reduce the ‘he said’ ‘she said’ problem. So it will work perfectly without the identifiers and adverbs:

‘Great Scott, Holmes, how the devil did you know that?’
‘My dear Watson, it was an elementary deduction.’
‘How so?’

See what I mean? The writing is smoother, the pace works better – and it’s shorter. Word count, remember, isn’t a target – it’s a tool. Of course, don’t just listen to me. Go read Hemingway.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


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