This post, from Robert Gregory Browne, originally appeared on his Casting the Bones site on 6/26/09.
One of our best American writers, Elmore Leonard, has famously said that he tries to “leave out the parts people skip” when he’s writing. Anyone who has read a Leonard novel knows that they are lean, move quickly, and certainly don’t require any skimming.
But what exactly does that mean?
People start skimming when they lose interest. When they want you to get on with things. When they’re not as engaged by the story as they should be.
So how do you keep them engaged? I have a few ideas:
Keep your prose style simple and economic and clear
You can certainly be clever and artistic, but never sacrifice economy and clarity for the sake of “art.” Much of that art, in fact, is writing in a way that the sentences and paragraphs and pages flow from one to the next, giving the reader no choice but to hang onto every word.
And clarity is always important. If a reader is confused about what is going on, she may well give up on you.
Don’t bog your story down with too much description
Descriptive passages can be quite beautiful, but your job is to weigh whether or not they’re necessary. Are they slowing the story down?
One of my favorite writers of all time is Raymond Chandler. But when I read his novels, I sometimes find myself skipping entire paragraphs. Chandler seemed to have this need to describe a room or character in great detail, and while that may have been part of the job is his day, I think it’s much less important now.
Gregory MacDonald, the author of the Fletch books, among others, once said that because we live in a “post-television” world, it is no longer necessary to describe everything. We all know what the Statue of Liberty looks like because we’ve seen it on TV. We’ve seen just about everything on TV, and probably even more on the Internet.
So, I think it’s best to limit your descriptions to only what is absolutely necessary to make the story work. Meaning: enough to set the scene, set up a character, or to CLARIFY an action.
Let’s face it. Saying something as simple as, The place was a dump. Several used syringes lay on the floor next to a ratty mattress with half its stuffing gone is often more than enough to get the message across.
If you can, describe a setting through the eyes of whatever character controls the scene (meaning POV). If you include the description as part of that character’s thought process, colored by his or her mood or personality, the description then becomes much more dynamic and also reveals a lot about that character.
One man’s dump, after all, may be another man’s paradise. And showing how a character reacts to a place is much more interesting than a static description.