Taking Explanations to the Chopping Block

I wrote before about shunning abstraction to evoke as much as possible. The sentence “Dorothy felt like one of those pickets her dad left in the yard for patching the fence,” is by no means a bad one. As I said earlier, it evokes a lot, with clarity and concision. But it still has the attribute of explaining to the reader. Any sentence that begins “Dorothy felt” spells out a conclusion. I find it best to allow your readers the benefit of presumed intelligence, and so to let them draw any conclusions in a story. 

In such sentences, I see the explanation resulting from an internal situation of the writing. Only Dorothy can tell that “Dorothy felt.” If I re-situate the writing outside of Dorothy’s mind, I must limit my choice of details to what an observer of Dorothy could notice. This gives readers not what Dorothy feels, but rather how she expresses it through her actions. In the previous discussion I suggested that she is “sulking on her back steps,” and then gave the subsequent sentence describing the pickets themselves. The word sulking to me sounds closer to an explanation than an image, so I’m going to throw it out in favor of visual details which evoke the same thing. And does Dorothy herself really think “I feel like one of those pickets”? That might be just melodramatic enough to make the reader remember she’s fictional.

“Dorothy sat hunched forward onto her knees. She looked out at the pickets her dad left in the yard for patching the fence. They had turned gray and warped when it rained, and she thought he might throw them out before he ever got to using them.” 

Dorothy’s posture shows that she sulks. What she notices about the pickets, and her pessimism about their future, shows her mood. But despite that the first two sentences have become less explanatory and more evocative through their external situation, I feel that the original sentence had an energy to it, keeping the sentences flowing, which may have been lost in the revisions. I can bring it back most easily by cutting any possible words and choosing more compelling ones for what’s left. Right now I have three sentences and forty-seven words. 

The word forward in the first sentence does nothing. Where else would she hunch? The same with out in the second. They go. Turned in the third sentence is weak. I replace it with grayed, making use of words already there: “They had grayed and warped….” She thought moves back inside her head, and tells us nothing we don’t know. Throw them out is uninteresting. I replace throw with pitch and cut out: “He might pitch them…” Might looks paltry before pitch, and since the pickets have warped, their uselessness is certain. He would pitch them. He ever got to is unnecessary. “He’d pitch them before using them.” Using is also weak. We can cut “patching the fence” from the second sentence (along with the now pointless for), and put it in place of using them

That makes the last two sentences into: “She looked at the pickets her dad left in the yard. They had grayed and warped when it rained, and he’d pitch them before ever patching the fence.” They look small enough to be one sentence. We can cut she looked at because it is already understood, and we can cut they from the third sentence, and join the two. 

“Dorothy sat hunched onto her knees. The pickets her dad left in the yard had grayed and warped when it rained, and he would pitch them before ever patching the fence.”

Now we have two sentences and thirty words, without an explanation among them. A lot of work for a small section, but if I can say what I mean in seventeen words fewer than before, the energy and strength of the writing will shoot up. Added or subtracting words will become impossible.


1 Comment

  1. Flikkun said,

    January 12, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    This is a lot for me to take in D: I’ll never remember it all.

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