Hewing Away the Rough Walls (Or, Five Ways to Put Your Story on a Diet)

Author Lisa L. Hannett joins the Shimmer blog once more, with very extremely good awesome writing advice that you can put into action today!


Michelangelo, that Renaissance jack-of-all-trades, is given credit for one of the most famous observations about the art of sculpture. “In every block of marble,” he says, “I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to other eyes as mine see it.” His now-iconic David is considered the ideal representation of the male form, not just because it is massive (even in the Middle Ages, size, apparently, mattered) and not just because Master Buonarotti was a whiz when it came to wielding a chisel, but because you can’t pinch an inch on young David. Trimmed of all fat, skin smooth and firm, hands placed just so to effortlessly prevent gravity from wreaking havoc with those muscular marble arms — this statue is a triumph of hewing away the rough walls and revealing the perfection trapped inside.

Great short stories writers all get a case of the Michelangelos when it comes to crafting their narratives. Although not everyone will immediately see the fully-formed shape of a story (Michelangelo’s a bit of a show-off in that respect), most will practise the same process of “hewing” the artist describes above. Through redrafting and revising each piece, writers of short fiction act the way word-sculptors should: shearing away all the flabby bits, they reveal only the story’s most essential elements, releasing striking images from the prison of sluggish prose.

But how do these word-sculptors do it? It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fairy tales or splatterpunk, space opera or paranormal romance, there are at least five ways you can tighten up your paragraphs and transform them into things of beauty.

Be active, not passive

Writing in the passive voice can waste words. Get your characters off their butts and make them do, instead of having things done to them. Saying, “Sunscreen was slathered on the albino’s skin” could be trimmed by telling us “The albino applied sunscreen” and it also makes us stop wondering who it was, exactly, that did the slathering in the first instance. (Sure, it could’ve been the albino, but then again it could’ve been a poltergeist with a penchant for zinc creams. There’s no indication, in the first sentence, whether it’s the former or the latter.) Writing primarily in the active voice will also allow you to use the occasional passive construction for dramatic or emotional impact. For example, if your protagonist is consistently described in active terms — “Her sword sliced the mutant’s head”; “His song hypnotised the court” — then using the passive voice at moments of crisis can underscore his/her loss of power — “Wounded, she was captured by the mutant king”; “When his voice faltered, he was cast out by the courtiers…”

Using active verbs to describe your characters’ actions can also help prevent awkward or flabby phrases. Early in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” for instance, “Gabriel could be seen piloting Freddy Malins across the landing.” Freddy isn’t “pulled along by the elbow,” nor is he “dragged by Gabriel across the landing” — instead, Gabriel “pilots” Freddy. This concise description instantly conjures up the image of one man directing another, but it also gives us a sense of Gabriel’s personality. He doesn’t guide or lead or assist Freddy; he pilots him. This active verb effectively sketches the characters’ movements, while simultaneously conveying Gabriel’s desire to steer people and events to suit his own purposes. Choosing exactly the right word — a process Flaubert refers to as selecting le mot juste — can tighten up your sentences, with the added bonus of adding dimension to your characters.

Let one word do the work of many

Taking the time to find le mot juste doesn’t have to be something you do in the first draft. If you’re someone who writes quickly, just to get the story down, then keep at it! When revising, watch out for words like very and really and extremely, which often crop up in that first mad burst of writing. Some authors, such as Susanna Clarke, pepper their stories with very. In the first few pages of “The Ladies of Grace Adieu,” we are told “The second Mrs Field and Cassandra were very pleased with each other and soon became very fond of each other” and “Miss Ursula and Miss Flora were very prettily behaved children” and there is also mention of “a very short letter,” “a very fine day,” “a very smart barouche,” “a very slovenly fellow,” a song played “very badly” so the pianist was “very reluctant” to play at all… and the onslaught of very continues throughout the collection. In Clarke’s case, this overabundance of very (as well as quite and rather) adds to the tone of the work — the wordiness is part of the point. But for those of us not recreating the verbosity of Regency literature, then choosing one perfect word instead of many can only benefit our prose. When tempted to use words like very, really, and extremely stop and ask yourself if there is a more effective way of conveying this idea. Is it very bad or abysmal? Is it extremely hot or searing? Is it really funny or hilarious?

The same applies to the general use of adjectives and adverbs. Most of us have been advised to use these descriptive words sparingly — because, in most cases, one word can do the work of many. If the sun is shining brightly, then perhaps blinding or dazzling will expresses this more accurately. If spilled blood is vibrant red, we may want to know the precise hue: is it crimson or scarlet or vermilion?

Cut down on speed bumps

A few other culprits can slow down your prose: that or so that, and then, and and so can act as visual speed bumps, subtly interrupting the flow of your sentences and paragraphs. As with very and its pals, you don’t have to eliminate these words and phrases altogether — but use them with intent, not out of habit. “She stirred the potion so that it would boil and then poured it into a bottle that sat on the workbench” makes perfect sense, and we can certainly visualise what’s being described. Even so, the sentence is sluggish. Removing these speed bumps creates quicker action: “She stirred the potion to boiling before pouring it into a ready bottle on the workbench.” More often than not, going back over your story and deleting that (and rearranging the sentence to accommodate this deletion) will cut down on your word count and tighten up your sentences.

Paying attention to how you use dialogue tags, even simple ones like “he said” and “she said”, can also change the story’s pace. Like commas, these tags can slow our reading, allowing our minds the time to process what our eyes have just scanned. These pauses can be used strategically to suggest a character’s hesitation or reluctance — “Well,” he said. “I guess you were right.” — or to build tension — “Luke,” Darth Vader said, leaning over the fallen Jedi, “I am your father.” However, when writing arguments and other moments of heightened emotion, getting rid of these indicators, as Robert Shearman does in this passage from “Pang,” adds a sense of immediacy to what’s being said.

She frowned, gave it a little thought. “No, I’m pretty sure it’s stopped.”

“But you can’t, one day, after fifteen years…”

“Seventeen years.”

“Seventeen. Good God, is it really?”

“Oh yes.”

“Seventeen. God. Well. Even more reason.”

“You must feel the same way,” she said. “Just a little. Don’t tell me I’m the only one.”

We don’t need the “he saids” and “she saids” after each line to know who is speaking here. And, more importantly, without them this exchange is quick and tense — the way you’d expect a breakup to be.

Borrow someone else’s eyes

Once you’ve completed your revisions, get someone else to read your story and give you feedback. And though I’ve no doubt your mom is awesome, she might not offer the most critical feedback… “That’s nice, dear,” she’ll say. “What a weird mind you have.” Other writers, on the other hand, are ideal critiquing partners. They’ll see repetitions you’ve overlooked a hundred times, no matter how sharp your editing skills. They’ll point out the verys and reallys and extremelys you thought you’d eradicated, and slice through flabby lines with fluorescent yellow highlighters. Plus, they’ll grant you access to their own word hoards, letting you know things like “an entrance to an underground mine which is horizontal or nearly horizontal” is actually called an adit — one word instead of twelve! You’ll expand your vocabulary and watch your sentences shrink, all in one fell swoop.

Let it breathe

If you can, take a step back from your work, give it some distance, before sending it off to a publisher. Give yourself time to regain the objectivity that is inevitably lost after spending so many hours intimately involved with a story. Let the rose-coloured editing glasses come off before giving your work a final once-over. Break up with your darlings — doing so will make it much easier to kill them. And if you still can’t kill them after a few days, you may at least be prepared to put them on starvation diets.

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