Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Revisting the Eternal Question: How Much is Too Much?

In a past piece, I talked about using as many words as one needs. I still get comments and questions about that question. I thought I'd try to give a little more perspective on it.  I once got an email from a new writer, who said this:

I notice I sometimes have trouble knowing when to quit. Like, when writing certain scenes, I fret about whether or not I'm saying too much, or not enough. Sometimes I'll write it real tight, but it will seem sort of truncated when read back. So, I'll add more, but find I'm meandering.
For example, let's say I wanted to describe a character's "wardrobe malfunction"...I could use this approach...
"When Bethany leaned forward, her generous bosom strained against the front of her imported Chinese silk dress. The dress, breathtakingly low-cut, was made from the same bolt of silk that her grandfather, an ex-British naval officer, had brought home with him after the war as a gift to the wife who, unbeknownst to him, had left him month's earlier to pursue a short-lived but torrid affair with the ne'er do well son of a disgraced Count who had lost his family's fortune to the Machiavellian scheming of a Viennese banker who just so happened to be seated right next to her this very evening, eyeing her dressfront and praying silently that it was made of one of the poorer quality silks that were often being imported today."
. . .  blah, blah, blah, you get the picture. Or I could say it like this:
"When Bethany leaned forward, her breasts fell out of the top of her dress and hung there like a pair of fried eggs."
Now, I'm just using Bethany and her dangling bosoms as an example, I'd never actually WRITE anything like that...It's just that it is often hard for me to figure out when to say less, and when to say more. I have a natural tendency to become long-winded in writing, and try to avoid too much of that. But I also don't want it to sound like a Twitter feed.

I guess I'll just keep working on it.

My reply to her was this:

Linda, I work as an editor besides writing myself, so I get a question similar to yours a lot. This is what I tell people: your narrative needs to advance the story. It might either advance the plot, or contribute to characterization/atmosphere. So in your first example, the story is not advanced by veering off the path into another story about her grandfather. I would say to an author "lose that!" - unless the entire plot needs to involve her grandfather and his history, in which case it would be justified. Does that make sense? So in summary: you never have too many words, IF they advance the plot, contribute to characterization, or contribute to atmosphere. I hope that helps. :)