Writer’s Quicksand

A musician friend, discussing a pop song, said it had “too many notes.” The melody was lost in an overzealous arrangement. Likewise, too many words–or digressions–mar an otherwise good story.

Not unlike many writers, I’m an avid reader: fiction, nonfiction, short stories, essays–all mediums that tell a story or reveal a truth. I am also tenacious, and reluctant to give up on a book simply because I don’t like the writing style.

Thus, a few days ago I began a book that, according to the hype, was a classic psychological thriller. All the requisite elements seemed to be in place: likable, sympathetic main character in jeopardy; interesting setting; intriguing plot; adequate tension. In other words, it should have been a real page turner. I tried to read at a normal pace, but kept finding myself sinking into a quicksand of words.

The author chose to burden a fairly straightforward narrative with endless stream-of-consciousness insertions–in paragraph after paragraph. This might have worked somewhat if the “thoughts” tied in with the plot, but they didn’t, nor did they indicate a fragile state of mind. They were simply a character quirk (thinking in clichés) that might be interesting in a nonfiction, psychological case study, but not in a novel.

As I read, I thought about why good writing can be derailed with superfluous detail.

How does it happen? Sometimes , in an effort to avoid the “cardboard” or “stock” character designation, we overemphasize a character’s traits or habits, mentioning them too often. Sometimes, because it’s generally important to provide descriptive details throughout the manuscript (not just at the beginning), we rely on that tried-and-true device–the elements. But, how many weather reports can the reader appreciate? Or, as I discovered after reading another novel recently, how many long, knit dresses can one author possibly include in a 346 page book? I found out–way too many!

Another pitfall is deviating from the plot, probably because writing fiction is the process of “making up” a world for our characters to inhabit, and giving them thoughts and actions to meet their challenges. It’s only natural that, In creating their world, we rely on what we know or imagine.

For example, if part of my plot involves my protagonist visiting someone living on a lonely ranch, I recall my uncle’s house, and how it looked when I was a child. I visualize the kitchen counter, the vintage dishes, the table covered with patterned oilcloth. So far, so good, but if I’m not careful I find myself writing about the fate of a horse my uncle gave me when I was  ten years old. The story has significance to me, and might even work as a short story, but having my character think about it is out of context only clutters my narrative.

I did finish the book because, in spite of the character’s rambling thoughts, the plot had merit. More importantly, it served as a valuable reminder to avoid miring the reader in pointless details and indulgent tangents. A lesson relearned.

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