Economy in style is a subject that not many novice writers think about, yet the older I get, and the more I write, the more crucial I think it is.
In former times, when readers had more time and weren’t distracted by the pace of today’s living – by TV, and by their smart phones – writers could indulge in lengthy character description, deep philosophical reflection, and wonderfully convoluted sentence construction. Not today. The prospective agent or publisher will take one look at a forty word opening sentence (such as the second sentence of this piece) and read no further.
I have touched on this in previous blogs (see Blog 7 on tension and pace), but here I want to explore it further. Economy in style, in description, in cast lists, in plot development, is one of most crucial considerations for the modern writer. Although this may seem to contradict what I’ve said in Blog 6 about emotional involvement. Combining the two makes the craft even more challenging.
ECONOMY OF PLOT
I am not advocating simplistic or single stranded plot lines. But I do think that whatever development or deviation one invents for the story must have relevance to the theme of the whole work and its final outcome. The modern reader will not tolerate charming diversions and fascinating detours if they are not relevant to the main thrust of the narrative. This is why the current trend for 60 or 80 thousand word books is so popular. That would have been considered short-changing the reader forty, even twenty years ago. The book (and even more, the play or film) must have drive.
ECONOMY OF CHARACTERS
Meaning, not so much rudimentary heroes and heroines – intricate personalities are the essence of good writing – but simply keeping the number of names within one’s tale to a minimum. I get frustrated when there are so many people in a novel that I have to keep flicking back through the pages to remind myself who someone is, and how they are involved in the story. Ask yourself, is this person really necessary? Can these two characters be amalgamated into one? If this individual seems only superficially present, can I integrate them more deeply into the theme, or should I ditch them altogether? Concentrate on the main protagonists.
ECONOMY OF STYLE
Perhaps the most important of all. It is the writing itself which gives pace to the story, and tension to its unfolding. After years of writing stage plays, and especially comedies, I have learnt to self-edit as I go along. I can feel instinctively when a sentence of dialogue has too many words in it, or even too many syllables! One word or syllable too many can kill a laugh. A speech containing two too many words can lose its whole potency. You must leave something to the reader’s imagination.
Compare the following:-
“This was a very enjoyable evening, but I have experienced more enjoyable ones in the past.” (my sentence – vaguely engaging)
“I’ve had a wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.” Groucho Marx. (OK – one of the funniest men ever, but you get the point.)
Likewise two pieces of prose:-
‘I got such a shock when I read my copy of The Times this morning, as I always did. The obituary page reported that my long-time friend, Julia, had passed away. It was quite a lengthy article, and it also showed a photograph, which caught my attention and was one taken in some studio back in the nineteen thirties, or perhaps a bit later. It showed her immense luminous eyes, mundane hairstyle, and overdone makeup. I reflected that it was strange we had remained friends for so long, because we never really had much in common, or even actually felt a great deal for one another.’
That is my presumptuous expansion of the opening lines of Brief Lives, by the great writer Anita Brookner.
Now read the real thing:-
‘Julia died. I read it in The Times this morning. There was quite a substantial obituary, but what immediately fixed my attention was the photograph. One of those studio portraits of the late 1930s or early 1940s, all huge semi-transparent eyes, flat hair, and dark lipstick. I never liked her, nor did she like me. Strange then how we managed to keep up a sort of friendship for so long.’
Says all the same things, but so much more potent and pacey. And note the paucity of adjectives and adverbs. It’s a golden rule that one should never use these bloody things unless they are absolutely necessary. They invariably indicate cliché and platitude.
‘She bravely summoned the last of her energy, and finally reached the lofty summit of the huge hill, where she stood gasping, gazing spellbound at the stunning vista beneath her.’ (3 adverbs, 3 adjectives)
‘She managed to drag herself to the summit, and there was rewarded by a view that exceeded anything she had imagined.’ (none)
Two things to strive for in every sentence – succinctness and originality.