Thursday, 12 October 2006

Less is more

I've been thinking about over-writing. That is, I've been musing on the topic. I haven't put it on my list of things to do. (1: Clean bathroom. 2: Do washing up. 3: Jam as many adjectives as possible into a paragraph.)

Over-writing comes in many forms. The most obvious is florid prose, the sin that led author and critic Arthur Quiller-Couch to offer this advice to writers:

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.

Amanda McKittrick Ros would have benefited from his advice. (Unfortunately, he wrote that in 1914 and she wrote the following in 1898.)

Her blending complexion just now contrasted beautifully with the richness of her abundant brown hair. Her superbly-formed eyes of grey-blue, with lightly-arched eyebrows and long lashes of that brownish tint, which only the lightly-tinted skin of an Arctic seal exhibits, looked divine. Her forehead was not boldly high, but enough there was and no more to show that a world of honour, self-sacrifice, and unflagging bravery hid itself in its shapely palace. Perfectly fashioned in face and figure, her lips exposed, as they sometimes parted, a candid and sorrowful feeling, that could not fail to soften the expression of an angelic face.

But I wasn't thinking about that type of over-writing. I was musing on the urge to explain, that irritating tendency of some writers to state the bleedin' obvious.

A character shouts and slams his fist on the table. Just in case the dumbo reader hasn't picked it up, the author announces that the character is angry. Well, duh! I worked that one out, thanks.

This might be the product of a writer who doesn't have much faith in the audience's intelligence. More likely it's down to the writer's lack of faith in his or her own ability to communicate. (Of course, it could just be lazy writing. I dunno.)

But from a reader's point of view (okay, this reader's p.o.v.), it's fun to make the connections. It's the difference between completing the cryptic crossword and simply looking at the answers in the paper the next day. One takes more effort than the other but the reward is disproportionate. (Did I just over-explain?)

I saw a great example of a screenwriter doing the right thing in a scene from Jericho. (It was just about all I saw of the show. I don't know if the series is good, bad or indifferent, but this part was spot on.) From what I could make out from the trailers, the good folk of Jericho, Colorado, are devastated when a nuclear detonation wipes out Denver. (Not as devastated as the people in Denver, obviously.) They're desperate to find out what's happened.

The scene: A man listens to Morse code. He writes on a notepad. We neither understand the code nor see what he's writing, yet we comprehend the connection. (A hack writer would have explained it to us by now.)

Then he walks to over to a board where there's a map of the United States. He takes a red pin and pushes it into Denver. Then he takes another to mark Atlanta. Then a handful. And another handful ... It goes on and on.

We know what it means. The character hasn't said anything. The writer hasn't given him one line of exposition but we can work it out. Less really can be more.

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