Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lesson 4: Over The Top Makes A Book Flop

Last week, we related theatrical performances to writing as a method to ensure that your characters are acting rather than being acted upon. Let’s continue with that analogy for a while today, alrighty? 

A stage actor has been taught to be animated. Their face needs to look alive. They need to project. They need to sell their performance to the audience. But some novice actors go a touch too far and instead of just acting, they over-act. You’ve seen this before, right? While watching the performance, you might hope the actor will turn it down a notch. If this actor has one of the lead roles, you might get so annoyed with their OVERACTING that you can’t wait to get out of the theater. 

Oftentimes, novice writers do the same thing. OVERWRITING is a symptom of writers trying to be more vivid with their writing.  If “showing, not telling” is the fundamental language all writers need to learn,  then it is only natural that diligent, hardworking writers are going to try to do just that and write prose that is meant to describe every scene to perfection. There’s a key word in that last sentence. Do you know what it is? It’s TRY. 

And sometimes when we TRY, it means something is not coming naturally to us. Trying too hard in writing results in manuscripts that are bogged down with flowery, superfluous prose which detracts from the storyline. 

If you feel like I’m contradicting what I said last week about slowing down the pace of The Seasons of Mae to let the reader absorb the lifestyle of the late 1800’s, I’m not! It IS confusing. But don’t worry: filling your novel with just the right amount of imagery is possibly one of the hardest tasks to master.

Last week’s good example of imagery was one small paragraph. Now take a look at a bad example:

The old wood floorboards creaked underneath the weight of the sturdy rocking chair as Mae absentmindedly rocked back and forth. The rhythmic rocking mimicked the perpetual beating of her heart, which she gave no thought to either. It was the magnificent sunset which held her interest.  She watched as the vibrant orange clouds mingled with the shockingly pink sky until they seemed to meld together like paint on the palette of a skilled painter. It wasn’t until the sun had completely fallen behind the tree-clad mountain that she remembered her surroundings. Her arms were ripe with gooseflesh from the brisk nighttime air and a chill ran up her spine as she heard the howl of a straggling coyote. She shouldn’t be out here alone, but what choice did she have other than to keep her eye on the lonely horizon until he finally came?

What stands out to you as you read that paragraph? It’s the overabundance of adjectives, isn’t it? They are like little speed bumps along the road to your plot. Picture yourself driving over a speed bump in a low-rider as you read every adjective in that paragraph. Are you annoyed yet? Unless you are aiming to annoy your readers, you’re going to need to plow down half of those speed bumps.

Don’t get me wrong: adjectives are good! BUT! Like everything else in life, they should be used in moderation. Take that first sentence for example: if the floor boards are creaking, we can assume that the wood is old. That’s an easy elimination. Examine your sentences carefully and get rid of unneeded adjectives. Also make sure the adjectives you pick pack a punch. Rather than saying “she had shoulder-length blonde hair” try something more descriptive by saying, “her flaxen hair rustled in the wind like a wheat field just before the harvest.” (Hasty example, but you get the idea.)

One of the best similes I’ve heard lately came from an episode of Psych, when Shawn says, “My heart feels like wet toilet paper.” Isn’t that the perfect description of a broken heart? Not only does it match the character’s personality, it gives the viewer a vivid image to attach to how Shawn is feeling. And notice how short that sentence is! See, you don’t always need to be wordy to illustrate your point. 

In addition to choosing powerful adjectives and nixing the rest, oftentimes novice writers spend too long dwelling on details. I once read a book where the author took an entire page to describe a waterfall. Yes, really. We’ve all seen waterfalls before (well, maybe except for the people who live smack dab in the middle of the Sahara Desert, but we’ll forget about them for now.) so why would we need to waste so much time describing how water descends from mountain top to valley floor? Nor should we spend more than a few sentences describing a character’s appearance—at least not all at once. Remember to weave those details throughout your story. You wouldn’t notice every feature on a person you have just met; your readers shouldn’t have to learn all those details at once either. Pick your character’s most prominent feature to describe first, and then later on, let your narrator notice how his hair curls up at the nape of his neck after he’s spent the afternoon working in the yard.

Think of how you would feel if you ate the entire bag of Oreo’s all at once. It’s too much! Relate this to your writing: you always want to leave your reader wanting more. Waiting for that next clue. That next piece of the puzzle the helps them see the plot you so meticulously planned. Give them one yummy little morsel at a time in a clear, precise fashion and you’ll have your readers eating out of the palm of your hand


  1. I recently read this advice somewhere else too--that of using adjectives sparingly, so thanks for fortifying that point for me. I like your depiction of eating a whole package of Oreos all at once. Gag! I'll be looking out for this pitfall in my writing. Thanks!

  2. A certain teenager at my house CAN and WILL eat an entire package of Oreos in one sitting! And he's skinny! I want his metabolism. Funny how teachers in middle school and high school want MORE adjectives and now we have to untrain ourselves from that bad habit. I wonder what else they taught us that was wrong??? :)


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