Before and After: A Study of Cutting Excess Language

The language used to tell a story influences whether your reader connects to your characters or thinks of them as mere constructions. The photo is of a billboard in Basel, Switzerland.

In focusing on Chapter 2, I’ve worked on the sound of my omniscient narrator. It’s a loud voice, at home with lofty pronouncements and words like comeuppance. It evokes the 19th century without being too stuffy or old-fashioned. The problem is the distance that type of language creates.

At its most poetic, this omniscient voice puts a hand in the face of the reader. Stay back, it warns. Don’t get too close to these characters. Which, in moderation, achieves a certain historical effect. But used too much, it alienates readers. Keeps them from feeling for the protagonist and his family.

Here’s a paragraph I’ve been revising with this problem in mind.

BEFORE:

The workshop hay loft was built on the north side with a rickety ladder and little headroom. It was a terrible place to store lumber, though no thief ever bothered the stockpile, not that a thief ever came near, but Georges was all for precautionary measures, and the walnut was fine wood, the kind one would bemoan should a short-sighted scoundrel steal it for a mediocre purpose, so he made the lumber-proprietors stack his supply there, despite the awkwardness of unloading. Moreover, the roof leaked upon occasion, spoiling some of the materials, which then had to be steamed to rid its finish of the blotches, and then sent to Monsieur Arragon, the least-picky of the distributors, who often fetched exorbitant prices on less-successful music boxes by sending them to Boston, where the intellectuals prized sound over appearance.

AFTER:

The hay loft was a terrible place to store lumber, but Georges liked taking precautionary measures. His walnut was fine wood with a proud grain. He traveled to the grove twice yearly to choose trees for his instruments, chiseling GB into the trunks to mark his picks. Should a scoundrel spirit some of his beloved planks away, they might be pressed into service as pantry shelving.

The first version sounds historical, with the long, sweeping, clause-heavy sentences.

The second version is much shorter, 66 words instead of 136, but it retains the historical sound. It’s also more intimate, focusing on Georges’ preoccupation with the quality of his wood. We learn more about Georges in those 66 words than we do in the original passage.

In the second version, I do miss Monsieur Arragon and his willingness to accept inferior products. If, in my rewrite, I decide to make Henri visit Boston, then he would meet Monsieur Arragon, and that would be the reason for putting him back in this paragraph. At this stage, though, he’s unnecessary.

The first two sections of my initial draft add up to 80,000 words, and there’s still a lot more story to tell. One of my goals in this revision is to cut back–and excess language is an easy target. Especially when paring down the language brings readers closer to the story. I want this narrative voice to whisper in the reader’s ear. Not shout. It should be intimate, ticklish, wry.

Do you have a before and after to share? I’d love to hear them. Leave examples in the comments, or if you want to write a blog post about this topic, make sure you share the link!

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1bhaB-BZ

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Revision, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Before and After: A Study of Cutting Excess Language

  1. Well, that’s a great example, so you’ve set the bar pretty high. 🙂

    I am aiming for concision with my current project (Stevie One), but so far the cutting has been of scenes, not phrases and sentences (my sentences are mostly pretty short to begin with).

    Two scenes were cut from Part One, for example. One was cut because it took us out of the third person limited (Larry and Thomas talk about Stephanie — and other matters — at the dinr when she’s eating at the counter and out of earshot). The other was a scene that didn’t break the POV, but it did introduce a character that I decided was better held back for later. When the story is done, I may post them as deleted scenes on my blog, as I have before.

    The detail in the long sentences in your example made me think of Henry James (the master of that sort of thing IMHO), but that made me think that his detail had a different purpose. His novels were contemporary, so his detail was at least partly to get a feeling of recognition frm his readers. He was describing their world, or at least a part of it. Which is different from setting a scene as you’re doing, which will be as unfamiliar to your readers as Middle Earth.

    I’m not sure quite where to take that thought rght now. If I do write a blog post about this, I’ll also bring in Mason & Dixon (Pynchon is another master of long sentences, but his faux Old English was in the service of a very modern sensibility).

  2. Thanks, Anthony! It’s great to hear how you weed scenes out as you work. I’m reading a memoir right now that reveals key information at the perfect time–quite a feat to examine one’s life and make sense of it, and I imagine it’s a similar info-juggling act to deciding when to introduce characters in serial fiction.

    I do hope you write a post about this–to hear your perspective and because I adore Mason & Dixon. I should put that on my reread list, as it has been years. Have you read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell? It’s an amazing faux history. With your love of Pynchon you might love it too.

    And hurray that you find my work reminds you of Henry James. That’s exactly the tone I’m trying for–and your point about world building vs. world describing is fascinating. I’ll have to think more about that. It might fit with the research post I’ve been pondering for a while.

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