Monday, January 21, 2013

Posted by Laurel Garver on 8:38 AM 12 comments
Today is my final installment of my series on "Reducing Bloat / Revising Overwriting."

Overly elaborate diction is what most think of when they hear the term "overwriting." I'd argue it's just one facet of a tendency to go thick, lush and heavy-handed when drafting. The trick is to identify and correct it during revision.

Advanced vocabulary
Your characters' word choices show us who they are, so it's important to be accurate. Generally word choices should be consistent with a character's age, level of education and socio-economic status. Just as a fifth grader wouldn't discuss post-feminist hegemony, a college professor wouldn't call his enemy "stinkypants."

There are exceptions, however. You might sprinkle in words like "indubitably" and "elementary" to show that your fifth grader fancies himself an amateur sleuth like Sherlock Holmes. A social climber might adopt fancy lingo but misuse it. A grade-skipping child prodigy would wield her vocabulary like a weapon.

As you revise, be willing to question your word choices. Advanced vocabulary can communicate some things you don't intend. It gives the impression that you, the writer, are insecure or a bit out of touch. It can also taint your characters with a popular stereotype: the evil genius whose intelligence is paired with heartless ambition, or the socially awkward hopeless nerd whose head is stuffed with useless knowledge.

Literary devices
As I wrote in this post, sound devices can be an effective tool to make your work sing. But if you're too heavy-handed, it sounds silly or just plain annoying. Generally assonance (repeated internal vowel sounds) is less jarring than alliteration (repeated initial consonant sounds) or rhyming, so you can be a little freer with it.

How heavy is too heavy? I don't have a hard and fast rule. If sound is a big piece of your style, you'll have a hard time identifying overkill. Ask three or four trustworthy readers who get your intent to help you trim all but the best of your devices.

Metaphor and simile can quickly become overdone. Beware of the tendency to describe every detail through comparisons. Watch out especially for inept comparisons that don't fit the character or situation. Stephanie Thornton posted some hilarious examples of simile gone awry.

A whole-work "controlling metaphor" or motif is often fine, however. If done well, it can unify and strengthen your work. Sarah Dessen's Lock and Key, for example, uses the motif of doors, keys, fences, houses to examine what makes a place home, and people around us family.

Allusion can be an effective way to say a lot in a small space--your reader will pour in all the context without your needing to explain. But if the book, film, song or historical event you reference is too obscure, it hinders rather than helps your reader. A character whose thoughts are filled with allusions to pop culture will come across as shallow and lacking original ideas of his own.

Name dropping brands is another type of allusion that becomes irksome quickly. Call your fleece jacket a "North Face" once, then stick with generic terms like fleece or jacket in subsequent reference.

Dialect
Take extra care when presenting a character whose regional accent isn't mainstream. The best way to handle dialect is through word order, cadence, grammar, and word choice. But go lightly, especially with regionalisms like "youse guys" or "blimey" or "y'all." And as much as possible, stick to standard spellings. If you've done your research and can imitate the cadence and use the right lingo, your readers will "hear" the dialect without the tortured spellings.

Which of these diction areas trips you up? Any other helpful hints to add?

12 comments:

  1. All great points! I can't really add any helpful hints other than to say that those hilarious similes were indeed a hoot and a half, and kind of really descriptive.

    I'd say a college prof calling somebody "stinkypants" could be used for comedic value too if you were aware of it, and made it clear to the audience this is unusual and thus funny.

    <3

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed the weird similies--great huh? Yes, comedy is very often dependent upon playing against expectation, so Prof. Stinkypants could be quite a funny guy to write.

      Delete
  2. Word choice by a character is so important, and choosing different language along with body language for each character is vital; gives the story tangibility and a heartbeat.

    Love your tips!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So true. It's been my experience that this is something older books don't always achieve. Some classics feel like a hard slog to read because the characters all sound uniformly grandiose and we can't relate.

      Delete
  3. Stinkypants! lol

    This has been a great series you've developed. I've recently learned to use alliteration. In the one instance I used it (in my latest book), it made a persuasive point, which I liked.

    Dialect is also very hard to sound convincing on the page. It needs to be very tight and not overblown.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your kind words. Alliteration can be a powerful rhetorical tool. Some of the great speeches are chock-full of it. To a degree it can be a way of creating great mnemonics (memory tricks) and a way of highlighting structure--something you see a lot in self-help books (or hear in sermons).

      Dialect is very tricky, and as much as possible, best to convey through cadence and a handful of regional words. It's the one main criticism I have of the Harry Potter books--Rowling DOES overdo the dialects with tortured spellings, especially for Hagrid and Fleur.

      Delete
  4. I critted one book years ago by a writer who is talented with metaphors, but she ended up dousing her ms with them. After awhile, I was ready to scream every time I saw another one.

    Fortunately I do not possess the same talent, so I don't over use them. :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Any gift can become a liability if not used in moderation. I've seen published books that gave me the feeling you describe. My take-away is that any technique applied too often will draw attention to itself and take away from the thrust of the story.

      Delete
  5. Such great points all writers need to hear!! We're taught in grade school and high school to add all these details, but in the "real world," they really detract. I'm learning the benefit of writing sparsely, but meticulously.

    Similes are my big bugaboo right now. I cringe at them. They rarely actually make a story better, and I heard once you should have no more than one or two really good ones in a novel. I'm starting the think that's true!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As Elizabeth Lyon said in Manuscript Makeover, most first drafts are a skeleton of what they should be. Laying IS important, if one is layering in the right stuff: Deeper emotion rather than fancy-sounding words for the sake of being fancy.

      Personally, I love a really apt metaphor or simile. The really zingy ones make me laugh and root for the protagonist. It's such an important aspect of voice in some genres. Sure, the Hemingway and Carver school is very "anti-decorative" in its approach, which fits certain kinds of stories but not others. I personally don't connect with characters who aren't colorful comparative thinkers. They bore me silly. But that's my subjective preference. This is why genres exist. Like ice cream flavors. Minimalism is a very subtle vanilla. (LOL -- a simile and a metaphor to explain why we need them!)

      Delete
  6. Choosing words appropriate to your character is so important. I write YA and I have three teenagers at home, so I always ask myself "how would so-and-so say this?" to get an idea of how my teenaged protagonists would speak.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a good guide to use. Knowing your audience is so important.

      Delete