Monday, February 18, 2008

Craft of Writing: Vividness outrank Brevity

Eons ago, when I was studying for my private pilot's license, I used to read Flying magazine and a column called I Learned About Flying From That. Amazingly helpful, sometimes scary real-life recountings from real-life pilots. A bit of "hangar flying," as we used to call it.

So I guess we can say this is I Learned About Writing From That, starting with Susan Kearney's posting and continuing with Colby Hodge's terrific example of the difference between showing and telling.

My personal "Learned About Writing" came largely from a battered yellow tome entitled Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. I personally think if you want to be a published author and can read only one how-to book, Techniques should be it. It was originally written in 1965 or thereabouts. That's how classic the advice is. And timeless. Everything Swain talks about you can use today, right now in your writing.

One of the first things Swain taught me was "Vividness Outranks Brevity." That fact is the basis of a workshop I teach on word choice. Pretty is not the same as beautiful. Old is not the same as decrepit. The wrong word or the right word can make the difference between a gripping scene or a ho-hum one.

The reason vividness outranks brevity is that your writing creates a story world and, as Swain says:

You need to remember three key points about the world in which your story takes place:
a. Your reader has never been there.
b. It's a sensory world.
c. It's a subjective world.

I don't care if you're writing about Chicago or London or West Long Branch, New Jersey. Even if every reader has been to those locales, he's never been to those locales through your character's eyes, experiencing those locales exactly as your character does.

We all know the old adage that if you have three witnesses to a car accident, you'll have three different versions of what happened (and as I'm a retired private investigator who's worked accident reconstruction, I can tell you that old adage is very true).

The reality is the unreality you create is your story world and it's fresh and new and foreign to your reader, even if they're been there in real life.

For that reason, vividness is of utmost importance.

How do you write vividly? Swain: "You present your story in terms of things that can be verified by sensory perception. Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch--these are the common denominators of human experience; these are the evidence that men believe.

Describe them precisely, put them forth in terms of action and of movement, and you're in business."

Go back and look at Cindy/Colby's blog offering again. This is exactly what she did to improve that passage. She brought us in with vividness, with human experiences through dialogue. She chose her characters movements--rubbing his hands over his face, or tossing his coat aside quickly--to fit the experience she wants the reader to have. You become the characters, you feel the characters because you are vividly brought into their situation.

I had the same challenge in the start of chapter two in my current work-in-progress, Hope's Folly.

Rya Bennton is a former military police officer now--with the collapse of the Empire's political structure--finds herself unemployed and siding with the rebels. But she has to get to their ship first.

My original draft is where I simply get my characters moving. I might not "see" the world as clearly. In subsequent drafts, I add in details that not only bring the reader into the world, but bring them in with the feelings and opinions I want them to have.

Hope's Folly is still being written. This section may yet go through changes. But you should be able to see the use of vividness in the opening paragraph of Chapter 2:

The passenger docks on Kirro Station were cavernous, dimly lit and bitingly cold. It didn’t escape Rya’s notice that someone with a sick sense of humor decreed the walls and bulkheads painted a distinctly icy color of pale blue. It took forty-five minutes for the Starford Spacelines’ transport ship to regurgitate Rya’s duffel out of its cargo holds, along with the rest of the passengers’ baggage. By that point, she had already turned up the collar on her brown leather jacket and tucked her hands under her armpits, releasing them only to make a grab for her duffel on the shuddering, rumbling baggage belt. Then she knelt, fished her dark blue Special Protection Service beret out of the side pocket, and removed the rank and service pins. She pulled the beret over her perpetually unruly hair. Some people might look twice if they knew what the beret symbolized. This was, after all, a declared Alliance station. Imperial Fleet in all its flavors, including ImpSec, was not welcome.

Granted, none of you have been to Kirro Station. But many of you have been to an airport or bus station, and the experiences of drafty buildings and lurching baggage belts are not uncommon. And I could have said just that--Rya walked through the drafty building to the lurching baggage belt. It would have gotten the job done.

But it wouldn't have brought you into her world as she hears it and feels it and sees it. So I used words like regurgitate Rya’s duffel out of its cargo holds and shuddering, rumbling baggage belt deliberately. I not only had Rya notice the cold, I had her keep her hands tucked in her armpits. Cold is cold but when you need to tuck your hands in your armpits, it's damned cold.

So craft lesson number one from Dwight Swain: vividness outranks brevity.



  1. Great lesson. I found myself doing just that on my latest draft. Going back and filling in the details the way the character sees it is very important for connection reasons.

  2. I don't come by this skill naturally. I seem to assume my readers will all be telepathic and see the story like a movie in their heads, just like I do.

  3. Good stuff.

    Whenever I'm missing sensory details in a book or movie, I think it's because the info is still in the author's head instead of on the page. Lost in translation, so to say, (or to cop a recent movie title).

    Injecting a story with all of those details is the nitty gritty of writing, I think. My first drafts are always good for a few laughs--or groans--when I discover details I overlooked. I should post this, er, post to my computer monitor. Thanks!

  4. I struggle with setting. I'm a total panster so I go back and add it in or I try to. It's sometimes hard for me because I don't see the surroundings.