Prune Your Prose – How to Keep Your Story Moving at Warp Speed – Part 2
Last week we talked about using a literary transporter to keep your story moving and your reader engaged. Mundane events like making a phone call to set up an appointment with a business executive, driving across town for the meeting, and chatting with the executive’s secretary prior to the meeting can usually be skipped.
But giving the reader too many mundane details isn’t the only way to bog down the story and test the reader’s patience. Giving the reader unnecessary words will also do the trick, and I see that in a lot of manuscripts that I receive for evaluation.
Just Prune Those Very Unnecessary Words
Words like just and very rarely contribute to the narrative. For example:
Before: Edward pulled up in front of the house, then switched off the engine and just shook his head as the reality sank in.
After: Edward pulled up in front of the house, then switched off the engine and shook his head as the reality sank in.
The author of that line may have felt that adding just helped to make the writing friendly and less formal. Instead, it momentarily puts the reader’s focus on the language rather than what’s happening in the scene.
Before: The meatloaf was very good, and he helped himself to another plateful.
After: The meatloaf was good, and he helped himself to another plateful.
If that author felt that good by itself wasn’t strong enough to describe the meatloaf, then a stronger adjective like delicious should have been used instead.
Before: Her love was a very special gift, and he just didn’t want to lose it.
After: Her love was a special gift, and he didn’t want to lose it.
Again, just and very don’t add anything to that line.
Ditch the Transitions
Transitions are important for moving between topics, settings, and the like, but some of the transitional expressions we use habitually are just filler. Many authors who send manuscripts to me for evaluation use unnecessary transitional words and phrases, usually at the openings of sentences.
Before: “I’m not sure,” the detective said. “But I’ll find out.” With that, he turned his attention to a reporter near the back of the room.
After: “I’m not sure,” the detective said. “But I’ll find out.” He turned his attention to a reporter near the back of the room.
Before: “Will you marry me?” With those words spoken, Gary reached into his pocket and pulled out the diamond ring.
After: “Will you marry me?” Gary reached into his pocket and pulled out the diamond ring.
Phrases like With that or With those words spoken are rarely necessary. Other phrases like When they arrived and At that moment can also be pruned away to pick up the pace without sacrificing anything in the narrative.
And Another Thing…
Here’s an example of something else I see frequently:
Before: And the teacher listened, too. And the kid with the orange hair droned on and on. And when he finally shut up, the teacher got up and left the room.
After: The teacher listened, too, as the kid with the orange hair droned on and on. When he finally shut up, the teacher got up and left the room.
Some writers feel that starting sentences with And serves to give the narrative a poetic feel. That might be the case if used sparingly, but most of the time it sounds repetitive and annoys the reader.
Assassinate Those Adverbs
It’s easy to overuse –ly words like actually, certainly, completely, immediately, suddenly, finally, quickly, and slowly. These and other adverbs can often be omitted or replaced with more specific verbs. For example:
Before: She shook her head, looking completely bewildered.
After: She shook her head, looking bewildered.
Before: He looked down at the dog and immediately winced when he saw the blood.
After: He looked down at the dog and winced when he saw the blood.
Before: She suddenly slapped the boy and loudly said, “Get out of here!”
After: She slapped the boy and screamed, “Get out of here!”
Before: He looked intently at the man behind the counter.
After: He stared at the man behind the counter.
Before: He cautiously looked around the office to make sure nobody was watching, then quickly took the wallet.
After: He glanced around the office to make sure nobody was watching, then snatched the wallet.
I’m not saying it’s a crime to use adverbs. Sometimes they add color and/or clarity to a sentence. In the last example above, I took out the word cautiously because the context of the scene (a man preparing to steal a wallet out of a desk) suggests that he’s being cautious. But the word might be helpful in a sentence like this: He cautiously stepped onto the bridge. That’s an efficient way to let the reader know the character’s state of mind in a situation where it may not be obvious.
Cutting away unnecessary words sometimes requires surgery rather than simple pruning.
Before: Paul opened his eyes and looked at the door and saw Elizabeth standing at the door staring in at him. She seemed to be deep in thought as she stared at him.
After: Paul opened his eyes and saw Elizabeth standing at his door, staring at him. She looked deep in thought.
In the above example, it isn’t necessary to tell the reader twice that Elizabeth is standing at the door, staring at Paul.
Before: Eric could see the rage in Mary’s face. It was clear she was not happy about what he had just told her.
After: Mary’s face darkened with rage.
If Eric has just spoken to Mary, it will be obvious that the look of rage on her face is a reaction to Eric’s words.
Below are some more examples:
Before: He stared ever so intently at the computer monitor in front of him like a man possessed.
After: He stared at the computer monitor like a man possessed.
Before: It was early one morning when suddenly I heard a heavy banging on the door.
After: Early one morning, I heard heavy banging on the door.
Before: She took her hand and placed it on his hand.
After: She placed her hand on his.
Before: Jack glared at the woman in the mink coat, stunned that she had slapped him the way she did.
After: Jack glared at the woman in the mink coat, stunned that she had slapped him.
Before: Uncle Joe did everything he could think of doing in his efforts to keep me on the straight and narrow.
After: Uncle Joe did his best to keep me on the straight and narrow.
Before: The experience taught me a valuable lesson about hanging around with hoodlums: Never hang around with hoodlums unless you want to become one.
After: The experience taught me a valuable lesson: Don’t hang around with hoodlums unless you want to become one.
Next time you read a novel by one of your favorite authors, pay attention to how she uses her literary transporter to keep the story moving at a good pace, how she avoids wasting page space on unnecessary words, and how she uses adverbs sparingly. Better yet, pick up a novel you’ve already read and enjoyed, then go through it looking for these techniques. It’ll help you become a better writer.