We are constantly told to write tight. No unnecessary words. Story as iceberg. Kill our darlings. Et cetera. You know, the Elmore Leonard school of writing.
And this is something I’ve taken to heart as I’ve tried to further my craft over the years. I like to think I’ve developed a spare style for myself. Which also may have evolved out of my experience writing flash fiction in one of my early writing groups. Still, I try to write tight, no matter what project I’m working on.
But sometimes this hurts me.
A long time ago, I wrote a post on how I have to write in layers, starting with a skeleton of action and dialogue and layering in all that other stuff that makes for a coherent and satisfying story.
Once I have a sense for my story, I’m eager to get it all down on the page and move on. I know what my characters need to do, when, and how. And then try to convey that as efficiently as possible.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Because I’ve already figured out what happens, there’s not always enough of an intellectual challenge to flesh the story out. Another reason is that there’s always another story jumping up and down in the back of my brain, waiting for its turn to be written. I have to take care to manage both of these impulses since I’m writing for publication, which requires a higher level of storytelling from me than if I were writing for my own entertainment.
Writing tight is great for controlling a story’s pacing. But if I’m too thin on the details, the character insights, the scene setting, and so on, I often rob my story of its full potential. So I have to spend a significant amount of time lingering over my scenes to ensure they are fully realized without slowing things down. And I often rely on my CPs and trusted readers to figure out what the right balance is.
Plot complications are another area I have to watch out for. After all, why delay the inevitable? I already know what happens in my stories, and complications just muck that up. But it’s also those complications that ratchet up tension and make the story’s climax awesome (or at least they should contribute).
There’s a reason I’ve stayed away from writing mysteries and suspense novels. So many of those stories rely on misinformation and red herrings to carry the story until the real plot is revealed at the three-quarters mark. And it’s hard for me to justify spending so much time developing irrelevant plot threads, when there’s a real story to cover. But I guess that’s just another writerly flaw of mine.
So while my craft has definitely benefited from learning to write tight, there are some pitfalls:
- Write too sparely, and you risk confusing your reader.
- Write too lean, and you rob your story of its full emotional impact.
- Write too tight, and you could ruin the journey for the reader.