Key Points: In late, out early. Start where things are happening, close to the change point, at the inciting incident. Minimize backstory. Remove extra characters and locations. Cut filler language, combine wording and ideas. Remove repetition. Use the right nouns and the right details. Use analogies for richness. Combine scenes -- have characters do something while they're talking. Don't proliferate viewpoints. Brevity doesn't just mean shorter, it also means packing more interesting material into what you keep. Trim the fat.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Seven, Episode Four, Brevity.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Dan] Use fewer words.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses... Okay. I'm not going to do that. I'm sorry. We used that joke once, didn't we?
[Brandon] Okay. Well, come up with words that you didn't use before, but use them shortly... No...
[Dan] Use different fewer words.
[Mary] This is an example of how not to be brief.
[Dan] Reprising your same jokes.
[Howard] This is also an example of how not to deliver a joke.
[Brandon] Belabor it? Okay. Brevity. I'm going to be kind of quiet this podcast. No, I'm not, because I can't, but...
[Mary] No, you've got...
[Dan] Everybody wants to learn about brevity from a guy who writes 450,000 word books.
[Brandon] Hey, I've never gone to 450. 400, now? [Chuckle] yeah, I'm not good at brevity. But I think brevity is very important. There are various different aspects of brevity. You can have a 300,000 word book that feels brief because you are always being in late and out early. You can have one that feels very verbose. Granted, it is going to feel pretty verbose compared to a good short story. But how do we be brief?
[Mary] Well, you already mentioned one of the key things, which is to get into the story late, and out of the scenes early. Basically, what that means is you want to know what your story is about and start at the point as close as possible to where things begin happening. I like to think of it with short fiction as my change point, and that I try to start as close to the change point as I can without having to build a whole lot of backstory. So giving you just enough to understand, to ground you before that first change happens.
[Howard] Yeah. I call it the inciting incident. The thing to keep in mind is that sometimes what you the writer think is the inciting incident, is actually not the change point. That's... You have a second incident later on that may be a better place to start. Often... I think that brings us to our second trick. One of the ways to be brief is to start editing by lopping off the first or the second chapter.
[Brandon] Now, let's go ahead and divide this. I think you can be brief in many different ways. What we started by talking about is story brevity. Let's go ahead and stick on story brevity for a few minutes before we get to editing brevity, which is something else. How can we make sure that our story is having maximum impact for the words that we are using?
[Mary] Well, when you're looking at short fiction, there's a couple of ways to control your story length. Some of these also work in novel length, when you're looking at scenes. It's basically that every character and scene location that you add, adds roughly... And this is really rough rule-of-thumb... Adds roughly 500 to 1,000 words to your word count for that short story or scene. So one thing you can do when you are coming up with your concept, is to make sure that your characters are doing double duty. Like if you have two characters that are fulfilling the same function, you should roll them into one. Scenic locations. Do they really need to travel someplace in order to have that other scene, or are you doing that just because it's a cool place? You can do that. But if you want to be concise, cut the other location.
[Brandon] Yeah. Making as much do as much as possible. Wow, does that even make sense? Trying to have every concept laden...
[Mary] More with less.
[Brandon] Yes. Do more work.
[Howard] Swiss Army knife characters. They're all functioning with... They're all doing multiple things.
[Brandon] Yeah. What about... All right, let's go ahead and go into the idea of language brevity. How do we approach actual brevity in language and doing not what I'm doing right now?
[Howard] I have to squish the dialogue into four panels, and accomplish an actual story purpose, plus a punchline, into those four panels. It forces a whole lot of discipline on me. I found, in fact, when I was at Mary's writers' retreat in... Was it September? Yeah, September of 2010. I found that it was very, very difficult for me to write quickly, because I am accustomed to writing a paragraph, and then going back over that paragraph and turning it into two sentences. Then going back into those two sentences and realizing, "No, that's really just one line of dialogue communicating that idea." So I'm turning... I'm literally turning 20 words into three.
[Brandon] What are you cutting, specifically? Usually?
[Howard] I... Well, I mean, the first thing to go is the filler language.
[Brandon] Okay. What filler language?
[Mary] Just. Very.
[Howard] Well, as you know... The sorts of things that we do when we're speaking in order to warm our vocal cords up and start emitting syllables. Then I start looking at the ideas in the sentence or in the paragraph, considering whether or not these can be combined into a single multi functional idea. Sometimes what I'm doing is looking at the ideas and saying, "Yeah, you know what, this one's actually superfluous. I'm going to save it for another strip. I'm going to pull it out because I'm just focusing on this one idea."
[Mary] Actually, taking a class in copy editing... Not copy editing, copywriting for advertising is incredibly useful because... One of the exercises that they had us do is that they gave us a paragraph of text and told us to cut it in half, but retain the tone and the feel and all the content. What you wind up doing is looking for ways to combine words. So instead of "elegant sofa," I would say "the davenport."
[Dan] Yeah. That's what I was going to say, is the briefer your writing becomes, the shorter of a form you're dealing with, the more important word choice is. From giant novel down to short story all the way down to poem. When you're in a poem, every single word has to pull an enormous amount of weight. So, you want to make your writing more brief, you really, really have to look at all the words, make sure that that's exactly the word you want.
[Howard] One of the tips I've heard for writers is, "Burn your thesaurus." If you really want to write well, and write briefly, you don't burn your thesaurus. You make sure that you're not saying to yourself, "I really wish I had another word for couch. I'm tired of saying couch." What you say is, "I wish I had a word that said couch in a way that communicates more than just couch." Then you arrive at davenport.
[Brandon] One of the other things in here, I'll throw in, we've mentioned before, is the expounding. You'll hear this any time someone's talking. You'll hear it with us talking on Writing Excuses.
[Dan] We do it all the time.
[Brandon] Because it's what people do to communicate. They repeat themselves. They say things in different ways. Which I just did. You see how that works? We do this a lot. It is something you can cut from your language in your writing. You'll find yourself writing it naturally. It makes you very self-conscious to even start thinking about it.
[Dan] Well, one thing that a lot of people do, is that they'll say everything twice. You need to not do that. [Laughter]
[Howard] At the beginning of this podcast, we talked about how not to sell a joke...
[Brandon] Okay. Let's have our book of the week save us.
[Howard] Who's got our book?
[Brandon] Mary, you've got our book of the week?
[Mary] Yes. I'm going to recommend Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Now, Audible actually has a copy of it that is read by Ray Bradbury himself. How cool is that? Ray Bradbury is not only one of the kings of short stories. He's also one of the kings of the concise novel. Fahrenheit 451 is one of the pivotal works of our time. It is basically a novella. It's really, really short. He is great. Highly recommended. I've said that multiple times now.
[Howard] So. Audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Fahrenheit 451, the version narrated by Ray Bradbury. Also authored, of course, by Ray Bradbury. That was a little repetitive now, wasn't it? Hey, support the podcast.
[Brandon] See, it makes you really self-conscious, doesn't it?
[Mary] It really does. It really, really does.
[Brandon] Really, really.
[Howard] I'll be honest with you. As we talk about that, and as we talk about that with regard to podcasting, I'm always editing myself as I'm talking for these casts, trying to find ways to pre-prune my sentences.
[Brandon] You're better than me.
[Dan] Yeah. We totally don't do that. That's why I say everything twice.
[Brandon] Producer Jordo is sitting over there groaning at us. He's like, "Get on with it, guys!"
[Dan] Jordo's not even paying attention.
[Mary] So here's another trick. Since we were talking about very specific word choices. When you are describing rooms, we've done podcasts talking about POV and how to use that to be more descriptive, but one trick is also to really look at the nouns that you use. Not just the verbs. We talk about... Lots of people talk about paying attention to your verbs. Not "walked slowly," but "strolled." But nouns can also do a lot to set the scene and set it very quickly. The davenport that I mentioned before immediately tells you that you're indoors, and you don't have to say that. So looking for like two or three concrete things and use those to hit the scene really fast.
[Brandon] Well, this is something that Dan has mentioned before that works really well. Instead of a big, thick paragraph full of description, if you describe one thing in brief and make it really concrete, often it will paint the entire picture of the room for you, if you do it right. A flickering lightbulb with dust in front of it tells you, okay, on attic or a storage room or something like this. If you describe that thing in one really impactful sentence, you've done most of your work already.
[Howard] One trick is to pick a signature element... It needs to be a signature element...
[Brandon] Yes, it does.
[Howard] The other trick is to have your POV character give us an analogy. He walked into the foyer of the office building and it felt like being in church. Suddenly we are picturing... Maybe it's vaulted ceilings or maybe it's... Whatever church you've been in.
[Dan] I guess that depends on what church you go to.
[Howard] Yeah, it depends on what church you go to, but the result is that the reader has been transported someplace else. Has been given a very full description. All you're doing... You're using a compression algorithm that involves something they already know, and you don't even need to know what it is.
[Brandon] Yeah. This is... One of the comments on a previous podcast... Someone asked us... Or maybe it was on our twitter feed... How to be rich without increasing length. This is what we're talking about, this richness. Let's focus... Since we've talked about language and description... How about... Let's focus on character. How can we be more rich with our characters? How can we achieve more but be more brief with characterizing them?
[Mary] One thing that I find is very effective is to give my characters an activity when I am doing the exposition. An activity that they need to do anyway. So instead of having the scene where they're preparing to go on the trip, and the scene where they talk about what we are going to do, how we are going to kill the monster, I do both of those scenes at the same time.
[Brandon] Right. If you really... If this is working really well, hopefully the things that they are choosing to pack to go kill the monster show us who they are as a person, what they think to bring along. Maybe the argument between the two characters as they're packing, and one is putting things in and the other is pulling them out, will show us who these two characters are, and their disagreements.
[Mary] You can also plant the gun on the mantle at the same time.
[Brandon] That's an excellent way to do it. We've talked about before, but let me reiterate to you, listeners, having lots of viewpoints is really dangerous for newer writers. One of the hardest things for me to learn as a writer was how to do multiple viewpoints. I think I learned it best by scaling up slowly. Writing good books with fewer viewpoints, and then adding more and more viewpoints. This is particularly problematic for all of you aspiring epic fantasy writers out there, of which I was one for many years. Keep your viewpoints down. It allows you to really hit hard a few characters, practice really characterizing them. It allows you to keep your length of your book down. Why is this all important? We're talking about being brief. We never talked about why it's so important to be brief. This is strange coming from a guy who habitually write really long books.
[Mary] I actually have this theory that goes back to our discussion about the Hollywood formula. That one of the things that it allows you to do... Short stories frequently... Not always. But when you're looking at top-tier short stories and top-tier novels, frequently short stories are able to deliver a much more painful emotional punch. I think it's because they are so compact, that you can build a series of emotions for the reader and deliver that final punch without letting any of the tension drop. When things get long, it becomes more difficult to hold the tension. It's... The simple analogy is if you have ever tried to string a clothesline, it's very easy to get that tight when it's... You're just holding it between your hands. But maintaining tension over a long span is really difficult.
[Brandon] Excellent. That's a really good point.
[Dan] One thing to think about is... When we talk about brevity, we're not necessarily talking about making something physically shorter, so much as increasing the density of interesting material. You can have a 400,000 word book that is just packed to the brim with really interesting stuff because you've taken the time to cut out the filler words, cut out the stuff you don't necessarily need.
[Brandon] Neal Stephenson is great at this.
[Dan] So that everything left is really, really rich.
[Brandon] Long books, that just all feel rich and dense all the way along. All right. Any other parting words on brevity? I think we want to end this podcast on time. Just because [coughing]
[Mary] Very fast. This is something that Howard started to talk about. Most of the time, when you are... When you get to the editing phase, you can cut the first paragraph and the last paragraph...
[Brandon] Yes, you can.
[Mary] Of almost every scene or chapter. Not all of them, but most of them, you can chop it. Do it.
[Brandon] Let's go ahead and stop there. Let's actually stop on time.
[Brandon] Let's do a writing prompt. Howard?
[Howard] Okay. You have a group of characters in a spaceship...
[Brandon] 10 seconds.
[Howard] On a very, very long trip. Tell us why it's important. Tell us what the problem is, and solve the problem. In 150 words.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excus...