Treat your fiction like an iceberg

berg

 

Maybe it’s because I spent too long in journalism — I have a tendency to explain things too much.

Every proper noun (and even the improper ones) gets a descriptive clause … even when I’m talking.  Take this example from the other night at home:

 

My spouse: Hey, what do you want for dinner?

Me: I’m not in the mood for Italian, which we’ve already had this week.  It would be great to get some kebabs from that little restaurant, the one near the village over by the liquor store.

 

All I needed to say was “kebabs,” right?

In the process of writing my novel, a big part of the revision process has entailed going over every sentence, in every chapter, and asking the same question: Am I explaining too much?

Let readers work for it, let their imaginations fill in what they can’t see …. if the narration’s in the first person, then the narrator’s comments should be a bit fragmentary and gnomic sometimes (like real people’s are).

Here’s an example from Thomas Harris’ Hannibal — yes, I’m talking about the sequel to Silence of the Lambs — that I read over the summer as a guilty pleasure.  Harris has some seriously good chops (and besides, anyone who can weave a lecture on Dante into a cat-and-mouse story involving a cannibal deserves some applause):

 

The screaming was awful to hear, but a fitting overture for the faces that came out of the woods, drawn to the screams announcing dinner.

 

That line’s as chilling to me as any in M.R. James.  He’s talking about a herd of hungry swine, and the incompleteness of his description of the animals — “the faces that came out of the woods” — leaves so much half-submerged.  Too much description, too much precision, and the horror effect would’ve been lost.

Which gets me to the headline for this post, about icebergs.  What  I’ve found is that writing’s more effective when …

…ah, my Beloved Friends, I’ll leave that for you to finish.

 

3 responses

  1. LOL LOL LOL…. I over ‘splain too! I can’t simply answer a question without adding the context. I like your image of iceberg.

    A kind friend gave me a keeper line after she’d read a couple of chapters: I didn’t need this.
    Ah. I went through again, reread to look for I don’t need this’s. Which is not probably a word but I find myself inventing words and punctuation structure. I hope someone with a sense of humor buys it.

    Have discovered a fine editing tool: wordle.net. You can plug in a wad of manuscript and get back a visual word cloud with overused words BIG. I’ve searched a word through the ms. and been able to see and rebuild sentences. Very cool.

  2. I’ve definitely had some don’t-need-thises, too! I can sympathize! That word search program sounds intriguing. I’m glad you’re making progress on your work, J. Onward my friend!

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