There’s a woman in my writing group (I’ll just call her Shorty) who can write a perfectly fleshed out story in six pages or less. In contrast, I have struggled to write a short story that was under ten pages. However, I’m more concise than I once was, back when I had an email address aptly named ‘wordy1’.
Here’s what I was doing wrong and how I learned to correct it.
Shot Down by Shorty
It’s painful to admit but I really didn’t see the problem with my work until Shorty joined our group. She not only taught by example, she also went through my story and highlighted every word that I could easily eliminate. There were a lot of them!
As it is with most writers I know, I rebelled against her suggestions at first. I liked my extra words and sentences and I had spent hours creating them. True, I sometimes grew tired of my writing when I was rereading it, but that’s just because I knew what would happen next, right?
Wrong. My main problem was that I didn’t know when to end. Shorty told me that I over-explained. “Your readers aren’t dense,” she said. “They know what you’re saying without you hammering it home.”
I bristled. Hammering it home sounded like I was pounding it into their heads with a sledge hammer. I was far more subtle than that!
If I said too much, Shorty said too little. That’s what I told myself. It helped for a while as I successfully ignored Shorty’s critiques and continued (rambled?) on.
Knowing When to Stop
Then one day, as I was editing my story, my mind slipped out of gear. I started to think about what I was making for dinner, what I would watch on TV that evening, what messages might be waiting for me on Social Media.
Losing focus happens, right? It doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with the writing. Right?
In my case … wrong again. I suddenly realized that I was bored with my story. Seeing that I had created it, if I was bored, my readers would be practically comatose.
I had to pull out Shorty’s critiques and review them. Yeah, I was going on too long. I had an extra sentence or two at the end of my sections, even at the end of several paragraphs, that didn’t add anything to the story.
And the ending of the story…well, it could have stopped half a page before it did. I started to cut, cut, cut, and tighten, tighten, tighten. These repetitive words came from a course I once took, and I thought I was following the instructions. But…
Why Stopping is Tough
… not often enough. Shorty was right—I didn’t trust my readers to ‘get it’. I thought I had to explain everything. I also realized that, if I adequately showed everything throughout the story, explanations were unnecessary.
So I worked on showing. I know, everyone’s sick of hearing ‘show don’t tell’, but if it’s done well, stories can be tightened into something extraordinary. What I realized was that I had, for the most part, been showing, but then tacking on some telling at the end. I didn’t need both.
Here’s one example:
“Aren’t you going to talk about it?” Jane asked.
Craig stuffed his hands into the front pockets of his jeans, his shoulders hunched. “Got nothing to say.”
His glare cut her off. After that, they worked in silence.
It was obvious that Craig didn’t want to talk. Jane let it go.
There’s no need for the last two sentences. We already know, from the scene itself, that Craig doesn’t want to talk and that Jane stays silent. Why tell us too?
It’s not just a matter of trusting our readers. My reluctance to stop often involves a bit of ego too – I think I’m being clever when I add those extra words. I create a darling that I’m not ready to kill.
Even though my darling is killing the rest of the paragraph.
The Perfect Ending?
I would like to say that all my endings are now perfect, that my story vibrates like a tightened guitar string. But there are still times when Shorty, along with the rest of the group, nail me for repetition, showing then telling what I’ve already shown. Eventually, when it happens often enough, the story becomes long and boring.
Sometimes I know before the group catches it. I notice my brain growing numb while I’m not only reading, but also writing, the story. I’m able to stop typing, reread what I’ve written and remove those add-ons.
My work is tighter, more interesting, and my images convey the message. I also find that I allow my characters to emphasize the point that I’m trying to make through their dialogue and reactions. Far more compelling.
As for Shorty, we’re now good friends. A few times I’ve been able to criticize her for being too concise, for not giving enough information to make her meaning clear. To be honest, I’m somewhat smug when wordy1 can flag shorty1 for not being wordy enough.