There are some writers who write stylish, poetic prose . . . aaaaaand then there are writers like me. I’m what I think of as a visual writer, that is, when the muse hits, I scramble down the movie that I see and hear in my brain. The upside of this is that writing is fun. I get to “live” the story along with the characters in the same way we live a movie.
The downside is twofold. First, it took me an embarrassing number of years to discover that I wasn’t in fact getting down as much of the sensory details as I thought. Rewriting was difficult because the sight of my words when I tried to revise brought the movie rushing back. It was pretty humiliating to discover that a reader didn’t get the movie from my skimpy, too-often banal words: my prose was not doing its job in getting that movie from my brain through the words to the reader’s brain.
Second, when I did manage to get it all down, there was all this . . . scaffolding.
You’ve probably been traveling, and seen great monuments being worked on. You blink past that rickety scaffold to the monument itself, and after a few seconds you don’t really notice the scaffold, except maybe to wish it hadn’t been there. But you go right on examining the monument. Well, when some of us write (I think mostly visual writers, but could be wrong) we are busy trying to anchor down point-of-view and the sequence of action. That’s scaffolding.
A few days ago, Steven Piziks was talking about some of this sort of stuff, here. But there’s more! Like:
I crept down the dank hall. Suddenly the cell door creaked open. I looked up and saw a hand pulling the door open to reveal that a tall man was there. “I was waiting for you,” he said. Krakatoa Gumnip! And in his hand he held a pistol.
If we take that in bits, the first sentence is okay. But do we really need that ‘suddenly’? When we’re writing, the pace of the scene is a lot slower than when a reader reads it. We know that—it takes months or years to write a book, and hours to read it—but we can forget that when we’re writing. I’ve discovered of late that about 90% of ‘suddenly’s can go, as the action coming next is ‘sudden’ for the reader unless the narrator indicates a slow or gradual change. Without that ‘suddenly’ the pacing actually seems quicker.
Next come two really boring verbs (‘looked up and saw’) for a single action—in fact, a single unnecessary action, because we already know we’re in the narrator’s point of view. The rest of that bit feels like it’s cinematic, but it’s very labored: we’re seeing a hand after we’ve learned that the door creaked open, we’re told twice that the door opens, then the door reveals a tall man.
If we remove the scaffolding, what do we get?
I crept down the dank hall. The cell door creaked, revealing a tall man. “I was waiting for you.” Krakatoa Gumnip! He held a pistol.
That doesn’t have any sensory additions, or figurative language, or style, it’s just vanilla prose. Bare bones prose. I want the bones to do their camera work before I start adding stylistic set dressing, costumes, music, and smells.
Here’s another example, one from the first draft of a book I have coming out in a year or so.
Mathan looked up, turned and stooped over the bed. He shook out the neatly folded quilt at the foot of the bed, then started to spread it over the unconscious boy. His first sight of the boy’s form and his matted hair made him pause. He turned to his wife. “He’s got a wound. His skull is cracked.”
With the scaffolding gone, it looks like this:
Mathen shook out the neatly folded quilt, then paused. “He’s got a wound.” He spread his fingers in instinctive protection, not quite touching the boy’s matted hair. “His skull is cracked.”
Phrases that often show up as scaffolding: He was the person who spoke, which could be just He spoke; She turned and left could be She left; Behind me, someone said . . . since the narrator can’t see the speaker, we can assume the speaker is out of sight, therefore, just Someone said . . . Other words or phrases to keep an eye on: immediately, It had occurred to . . ., somehow, just. ‘Just’ is so small a word, but when it begins cropping up several times a page, the cumulative effect can add to a slower pace.
Finally, here’s a great trick to find out what words one is overusing: make a Wordle of your ms. If any of the big words are scaffolding, maybe it’s time for global search-and-destroy.