How to write enough (but just enough) to engage the reader
There’s a great moment in the classic film Key Largo, when gangster Edward G. Robinson is asked—given the extent of his wealth and power—what he could possibly still want. “More,” he famously answers.
More. Kind of the American credo in a nutshell, which isn’t as damning as it sounds. The word "more," when appearing before such other words as individual rights, artistic freedom and access to information, stands as a proud element of the Western imperative. On the downside, more has also fueled global climate change, the growing gulf between people’s incomes, and an almost obscene preoccupation with material things. When it comes to life in general, "more" is definitely a two-edged sword.
I’d argue that the same holds true with the craft of writing. More is not always better. In a screenplay, for example, an overwritten patch of description can bring the reader to a screeching halt, draining the narrative of pace and forward momentum.
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Or take monologues. Unless used sparingly, and with a definite intent, a monologue in a film or TV script can often make the character just seem wordy. (Exceptions abound, of course. Such powerhouse writers as Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling and Quentin Tarantino come to mind. And even they occasionally fell prey to mere self-indulgence.)
In a short story or novel, endless words of description—whether of place, a character’s physical appearance, or in the service of the author’s thematic or philosophical interests—can slow the narrative to a crawl.
Overwriting, it’s safe to say, is by general agreement a bad thing. Then why do so many writers do it?
Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about the normal, expected overwriting that characterizes your first draft. During those explosive, flowing, unfolding bursts of creativity, your inner editor is—you hope—asleep at the switch until you get the myriad ideas, incidents, breath-taking narrative leaps and beside-the-point stretches of dialogue down. The first draft is when you do get to describe a character as “grungy, foul-smelling, disheveled, knuckle-dragging and poorly-dressed.” You can even add, “We are repulsed. Taken aback. Aghast. The camera’s eye wants to turn away.” The more socially-conscious might note: “A grim reminder of the dismantling of the welfare system’s safety net in the past thirty years.”
No matter. All that hooey gets edited out in later drafts. Or should. Yet, for some writers, it feels like tearing a piece of their skin away to delete any of it. Why? Is it because they think every word is golden? Hardly. In fact, it’s the reverse.
In my experience with the writer patients in my therapy practice, those who tend to overwrite are usually struggling, whether they know it or not, with issues of self-trust. Either they don’t feel entitled to be writing in the first place and thus need a cornucopia of words to try to mask this, or else they feel unsure of their talent and craft. If the latter is the case, these writers try to convince the reader of the legitimacy of the idea or emotion or scene being depicted by packing it with adjectives, metaphors and authorial asides. Anything—and everything—to make sure the reader gets it.
On the other hand, writers who trust their skills and/or feel entitled to be writing at all have faith in the narrative and emotional power of the single appropriate phrase, the short though vivid description, the seemingly simple line of dialogue freighted with meaningful subtext.
The ancient poet Gensei wrote: “The point of life is to know what’s enough.” That’s the point of writing as well. Not only does self-trust enable writers to shape their work into its most effective, compelling form, but such writing also has enough “air” in it to allow readers to bring their own experiences to what they’re reading (or seeing onscreen), thus increasing the work’s relevancy.
In other words, good writing is what is evoked in the spaces between the written lines. Good writers have enough trust in themselves to know that there’s something there, and that they’ve written enough (but just enough) to convey the thought that sparks the echoing thought in the reader’s mind. They’ve portrayed enough of the character’s emotional life to resonate with similar aspects of the reader’s inner world. A single descriptive word, such as barren or choked or remorseless, can bring with it a wealth of associations to thoughts, feelings and images waiting to be stirred into life in the reader’s imagination.
How do writers develop self-trust? The way we do in most other aspects of life. By doing. Writing. Risking that our readers will follow us where we’re going; that what we have to say, or what we’ve always felt, or what we openly fear or yearn for, will find a recognizable home in the reader’s heart. Self-trust, like it or not, is born of risk. As are most worthwhile things.
Ultimately, if we believe we ourselves are enough, we’ll believe that what we’re writing is enough, too.
Reposted From Hollywood on the Couch
A former Hollywood screenwriter, DENNIS PALUMBO is now a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. He’s also the author of the Daniel Rinaldi series of mysteries. For more info, please visit www.dennispalumbo.com