Friday, September 28, 2012

When Bigger Isn't Better


It is a rare sight to find an author who habitually finishes their stories much shorter than planned, at least not without a conscientious effort. Though I’ve read works far too clear and to the point, and drafts that needed an extra few thousand words, it wasn’t an accident, but an uniformed choice. Words tend to drag out by accident. The author just writes and happens to find out his play is four hours too long. Works are cut short not because the author wrote and found that he finished sooner than expected, but because he wanted to finish and cut to the chase and he usually didn’t know how long it needed to be or care.

The most common criticisms demand for cuts, the common advice suggesting to be terse like Hemmingway, and though there is the problem of not putting enough information, if we were to walk up to a random teacher, their blanket advice would be to not use unnecessary words. Though not every author needs to focus on keeping it to the minimum, it’s something that many of us struggle with. And even those who are good at making something a manageable length are frustrated by pacing.

Over the years I have found that there are two major causes for a book starting to become a monster: 1) emotional changes, 2) stalling.

Stalling, the preverbal “um” in writing, is the process in which the author, not knowing something important—what happens next, how to get to what happens next—draws out the scene. It can be as little as putting extra words as we try to get the sentence right or extra events, it is anything added that we didn’t really plan or necessarily want in there. It is often something that can be taken out with the one exception that it would mess with the series of cause and affects. The problem of delaying is more common for fast typers, for prolific writers, and for those who don’t preplan the story out. Authors who have to take their time to get the words out have more opportunity to think about what they say. People who write every day, who force themselves to move forward, will continue despite not knowing what to say, and that will lead them to have pages of things that may be interesting and entertaining, but has nothing to do with anything, doesn’t move the plot forward, and makes it hard to tie things together in the end.

Like anything in writing, stalling has its benefits, and sometimes it will take the book into a new direction that the author prefers. Staying to stringent regulations just stifles creativity. When stalling is most important is when there are time limitations, or when the author decides he’s taking too much time with something. I am not a big fan of the phrase “isn’t needed,” when it comes to cutting, and the whole concept of this postponing is meant for when an author decides he wants it to be shorter, or more to the point, can’t decide why he doesn’t like the duration of the scene. When looking for things to cut or what to do with an unappealing scene or even sentence, considering the possibility of that the author was delaying gives opportunity to understand why he doesn’t like it.

The stretching out of transitions, on the other hand, are much more common and important. Changing from love to anger within the duration of the scene, believably, is difficult. A very common transition that authors have to deal with is the acceptance of the supernatural, when coming from a “real world” world.

What often takes up a lot of time is these transitions of getting from one emotional place to the other. Abrupt changes can look forced, and authors realize that. Making a fluid build-up is tricky. Often times, stalling takes place as the writer tries to figure out how a person would react, what sets him off to be suddenly angered, mad, convinced, or even decides to take action having been passive.

There are several tricks to sudden changes. One is to make the little triggers more obvious, or adding more/some in. For instance, if the author wished to make the boyfriend angry, when she slurps her soup, describe his facial expression. Have him talk about something bad that happened that day. Lead up to the sudden burst of rage with little hints that he’s already angry, and draw attention to them by making the description longer, or the sentence shorter. “Description longer” being more sentences, “sentences shorter” being less words.

Secondly, unless the story is a novel being told in first person, not describing each emotion the character is feeling and not drawing attention to the exact moment the character does believe or decides he is going to get up and leave can let the audience sense it before they know for sure, and therefore the subject of surprise (as surprise first leads to denial) doesn’t need to be dealt with.

Since this subject is about shortening work, having small triggers is an issue. The question is to use the time given. If the sudden change needs to occur within only the scene, there can still be foreshadowing outside of it. If, for example, the point is to make the lovers argue, then hinting at the boyfriend’s buttons before she pushes them will reveal to the audience what happened. If the sudden change is right at the beginning, or the work is extremely limited in size (a short film or story), then the simplest way to make a transition would be quick and obvious reactions. Dialogue tends to drag things out. If a character is being exposed to, say, a vampire for the first time, having lived for 30 years having no evidence that they exist, instead of having her argue about it, she can do something simple: turn and walk away, raise her eyebrows but carry on with the conversation. It is even possible to go through the few stages of grief (or stages of change as I call it)—denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance—in silence with only a few reactions. A short scoff, stepping back, looking around, jaw tightening, hands clenching, breathing returning to normal, all these little sorts of small physicality’s can tell what the character is thinking without taking too much time to do it in. So if the author has a short amount of time to go through a flurry of emotions, the character doesn’t need to say one word about it.