Stop Trying so Hard!

Break out the red pen and cut back on the flowery language. Image credit: cellar_door_films WANA Commons

We’ve all heard of overacting. Actors trying too hard to perform well, but it just ends up with them looking like a fool. This can happen to writers as well. We try to nail the opening scene of a book or short story, and we include beautiful details and descriptions and flowing poetic language because we’re so enveloped in a new story. We’re enchanted by the fact that we have something new, and it’s going to be the next best thing, and it’s going to sell four hundred billion copies, and we’ll never have to work again.

Sure, it’s possible. But only if you nail the entire book, not just the opening. And sometimes even that doesn’t work.

For my Fiction Workshop class we had an assignment to write the beginning of a story, no more than 100 words to share with the class. I sort of cheated and brought in the first 100 words of His Only Star, but everyone loved it, so it worked out. Anyway, one of the other students wrote a piece about an angel strapping on her armor, soaring into the sky, and gazing happily at the marching army of angels below as Armageddon approached. It was an interesting enough concept I suppose. He set up a decent epic fantasy novel. However, it was obvious he was writing with the mindset that he had to make those 100 words the best he could. He used massive sentences and big words, which is fine. But, I’m willing to bet that if we jumped ahead 10,000 words, the writing wouldn’t be as detailed. Things change as you progress through a story. You’re trying to churn out plot points and develop your characters, so you lose some of the flowery language and details by moving the story forward. There’s a chance that the reader will notice when “the hulking brute perched himself precariously on the precipice” (I really didn’t mean to use so many “p” words!), changes to “Marcus held onto the edge of the ledge, his fingers growing weary with fatigue.” Granted, the latter sentence could explain what happens right after the precariously perched brute (Marcus), but is the first sentence really any better than the second. Just because I used bigger words doesn’t mean the sentence hold any more weight.

Another–perhaps better–example:

“He gripped the hilt of his mighty blade, the razor-sharp edge gleaming in the bright afternoon sun as he mutilated every soldier, cutting through them with the utmost ease, as if he had been doing it since he was brought into this world.”

Now, fast forward a few thousand words, and the sentence might look like:

“His knuckles were white from the firm grip on his blade. He cut his opponents down where they stood. It felt natural to him. As if he were born to do it.”

I used simpler language, and I accented on a physical trait of the character. I think this helps the reader to connect more with the character. Instead of making the blade so important, I made his white knuckles important. I showed how hard he was gripping his sword. Now the reader can identify with that, as I’m sure we’ve all gripped something tightly enough to obtain white knuckle status. Instead of wasting energy on big words, I put it where it was important. The reader isn’t going to like it if they have to turn to a dictionary each time they read a new paragraph. Of course, you may disagree with me. And that’s fine. This is merely my personal opinion.

Now it’s your turn. Post two sentences in the comments. Write the first first sentence as epic, and amazingly described sentence you can. Now, write the second simpler. Try to think what part of it needs the detail. What part of the sentence will make the reader identify the most?



8 thoughts on “Stop Trying so Hard!

  1. 1) She sat very still, her mind churning with possibilities. 2) She slouched in the chair looking at her feet propped on the foot stool wondering, now what.

  2. I love your examples. The funny thing, though, is that I don’t think I could write uber flowery prose if I tried. I write the way I talk, which is to say that I keep my sentences fairly short (though they sometimes run on).

    When you only have 100 words, though. it’s hard to properly set a scene. Maybe that’s why I don’t write short stories.

  3. A) Carly slouched languidly in her cracked-leather desk chair, her arm–pale as marble–the only cushion for a sweet, heart-shaped chin, and as she gazed mournfully out the frosted window pane, she reflected on a life that once was, that could never be again, because of the heartbreak she had caused the ones she loved most in this vast and uncaring cosmos.

    C) Carly slouched in her chair, unhappy because her parents had grounded her for skipping school that day.

  4. The other thing about flowery language is that it’s distracting. “Simple” – aka “everyday” – language lets a read see the action, not how many big words you know. I’m a fan of simple.

  5. Good post Chris, its very true. Im going through this at the moment. Im reading a Kathy Reichs book and its very hard to read quickly – too many technical words and explanations. Her previous books were far more layman and much easier too read.

  6. There are so many competitions that ask for the opening sentence or the first ten pages of your manuscript. This is fine, as the opening sells a book, but the whole story has to be good if you want to keep readers. You want them to come back for your second book, and your third, and…

  7. I do often find that people who tend to over-write do it throughout their draft and not just at the begnning. I know, because I do it myself. I am very aware of it though and aware of the determental effect it can have on the reception of the story. So I’m ruthless in the redrafting process. The two main concepts I keep a hold of when editing are ‘less is more’ and ‘show don’t tell’. I understand what it’s like to be invested in a character or plot point, being deperate for the reader to get it so tend to over explain. But you need to trust your reader. They will thank you for it.

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