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  1. #1
    Registered User SilentDan's Avatar
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    Elements of a short and punchy style

    A lot of writers, particularly beginners, tend to waffle on ad nauseum about the trees and the grass and the rocky path - when the hero's being chased by savage wolves.

    I have the opposite problem. My style (and voice?) has become short. Like, I won't stop to describe anything. Well maybe not nothing... but I am sparse with everything, tending to skim over as if it's one of my plot-summaries. I've gone the opposite way. My first 'novel' ended up being only 25,000 words, thanks to this. In an effort not to become obese, I've made my writing anorexic. I squeeze all the sustenance out of it, that's what I fear.

    Considering it's a fast-paced action-plot in a post-apocalyptic ruin, with bullets whizzing everywhere, it's good to be lean - but the buff kind of lean, not the twig type. Right?

    Is there a checklist for what a short and punchy style should and shouldn't include?

  2. #2
    KMTolan kmtolan's Avatar
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    Yeah, give your reader time to breathe. Short and punchy is great for action scenes (and I lean toward them myself) but are no excuse for not first setting up the scene upon which the action will commence.

    Say, you have an upcoming battle. There is always time for a soldier to look over the field to distract themselves from the fear, right? Often this alone can give you opportunities for more ideas based on strategic settings supplied during the description. I'm not talking an entire droning page of setup, but even a single paragraph or two can do wonders. You don't get short with description (and yes, there's getting in too much too).

    Kerry

  3. #3
    Registered User SilentDan's Avatar
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    Exactly.

    There's a time for quiet contemplation and idyllic scenery. There's time for relaxation and "taking it in", and I need to make sure I do that or it'll be 100% POW POW BAM BAM KERSPLODE!!!!!1!!!11! and that'llmakethereaderveryannoyedwon'tit?

    But Tolkien's style isn't my style either. So somewhere in the middle, doing what makes for an enjoyable read within the parametres of the style, is essential.

  4. #4
    Can you provide a paragraph or two of your work?
    Igor

  5. #5
    Forgive us our tristises Tristis's Avatar
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    If it were me—and it has been—I would do some writing exercises.

    To keep from getting distracted, make sure you write description only, NOT story. You can always save the work and go back to find any nugget of story that blossomed there.

    Write a detailed description of where you are sitting right now. Include everything your senses can tell you about it, and what emotions (or lack thereof) can be stirred by it. Provide the overall setting, but also pick out significant items or landmarks within your field of vision and describe these in specific detail.

    Repeat this with an imagined room/road/village—remember NOT STORY. Just description. Go back and forth between broad and fine, like the harbour and the knotted rope that ties the ship to the wharf.

    This is unimportant and therefore uninhibited garbage you never intend to ever use. Wax poetic. Be over the top. Give that pendulum in your creative centre a big hard push to the other extreme. Purple! Purple! Purple!

    It's fun.

    I have such a habit of this, I find myself describing things in my head when just walking through my regular life. I narrate my landscape…which makes me a geek, but nobody knows except me.

    And now anybody who reads this. But it works. It makes it far easier to write detail when I have to.

  6. #6
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    If it's SF or fantasy, the issue is that you are either creating a world with which the reader is only familiar on basic things like trees and houses or you are creating new parts to the world they know that they are not familiar with. So doing a sparse style (which is different from a short and punchy style but is what you are actually describing,) can be kind of difficult unless you are doing a near future story or a contemporary fantasy or something like that where basic description beyond saying, it's a maple tree or it's a chair, isn't as necessary. (A short and punchy style may have oodles of description but uses short and staccato rhythms for sentences.)

    So the issue is to look at the speculative elements of the story and figure out how much information the readers need to know about those speculative elements and what they look like, and further, what those speculative elements mean for the characters relative to the events of the story. So for instance, if a big part of the story is the main characters dealing with a dragon, readers know basically what a dragon is, but there are different appearances, mannerisms, etc. for dragon ideas. So at least some description of the dragon is necessary for readers to understand what sort of dragon they are dealing with -- wings, no wings, intelligent or animalistic or telepathic or gold hoarding, etc. If you are inventing some entirely new alien monster in a strange spaceship, however, you're going to have to provide more information and description as readers can't follow it as clearly without that as they can with a dragon. So what is known, what is important, rules the day, even in a sparse style.

    One of the books I'm reading now is Red Shirts by John Scalzi. It's a satiric meta-fiction about a future with a spacefleet very similar to a certain 1960's SF t.v. show but also other stuff from other shows. It is very sparse on description. That's because readers can pretty much fill it in re the television/movie/geekfest aspects. But to get certain jokes, there has to be some description. There is description of a Spock-like character raising an eyebrow, because Leonard Nimoy did that as Spock, so it's funny. There's a detailed description of a calculating machine because that description allows fun to be made at the type of machine props they used on storylines on these t.v. shows. But the description is only focused on those things the reader needs to know are there. What the reader needs to know depends on what sort of story you're doing and what you want to show them.

    In a post-apocalyptic world, you changed the world. So you have to describe those changes so the reader understands that they are there. You have to describe how those changes effect the characters and, if the characters remember the world as it was before the disaster, how they feel and what they notice about those changes. That doesn't necessarily require tons of exposition, but it may require you taking some of the pictures in your head and giving some details about those pictures to the readers so that they can also see it.

    One way to do this is to remember that your pov characters are your cameras, but they aren't just observing. They also react, analyze, interpret and make decisions about what and who they run into and that becomes part of the view. The readers may or may not agree with the view of the character, but they will understand the character from this and they will have a better understanding of the world filtered through the pov character's viewpoint. What happens a lot of the time is that this info gets left out, not down on the page. The author knows what the character is observing and thinking or feeling about it, but doesn't put it down. That's not necessarily action-filled and punchy. It can just be boring, like a news article. So see if the characters are lacking in much interest in the world around them unintentionally.

    And finally, take a look and see if maybe the stories you are writing are simply novellas instead of novels. That may be the right length for the story and you simply haven't found your story idea that will work for a novel length as yet.

  7. #7
    Short and punchy can do very well. Hemingway was well-known for that kind of style. Check out "For Whom the Bell Tolls" if you want to read a really good, action-filled story written in that style.

  8. #8
    Registered User SilentDan's Avatar
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    I started out intending them to be novels, but they turned out novellas. I have been told that one scene in particular, because it was so short, was "boring and pointless" (ouch) and I think that's what made me aware of how short they all seem. But for novella size, the form demands smaller, more bite-sized pieces.

    That "free to spew purple" exercise sounds like a good one. After all, the first time is often word vomit, just raw writing, the second is often when it starts to be pruned and polished a bit more, the more refined type of writing.

  9. #9
    Registered User SilentDan's Avatar
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    Sample

    The cafe was open-air design, with fold-away doors on three sides. The northern face overlooked the oval and waterfall, while the west looked at the road which cut between the oval and the apartment buildings—buildings than any number of snipers might be positioned in. Jessica however was interested in the eastern side facing the small cliff, above which was the Spring Hill corner. It was the stairs down from there that she carefully moved down.

    Jessica froze when she saw the guards. Even though they couldn’t see her—the ring was still making her feel cold all over—she froze anyway. It was just instinctual, her sniper’s awareness of line-of-sight and concealment coming as naturally as breathing.

    Guards could be problematic. Even invisible, she had to be careful not to give away any sign of her passage. She had to be a ghost. That was why she only placed her feet on ground that wouldn’t leave footprints. Not a mark. She also couldn’t make a sound, though the bandit party was probably loud enough to mask any she made. It took longer, but it meant she could sneak right past the guard watching the area on the eastern side of the cafe. She noted that he was facing out, watching for threats from outside. There was nobody watching the troll himself, however.

    Modok lay on a couple of restaurant tables pushed together, heavy chains around each wrist. His chest rose and fell with each breath, the snorting sound of a troll loud in the night—though the sounds of the bandits revelling took centre stage of the soundscape.

    “Don’t move,” Jessica whispered in Modok’s ear. He started, snorted, but it didn’t draw the guard’s attention. “I’m here to free you.” Modok to his credit said nothing. Jessica moved away, ghosted up behind the right-side bandit guard and silently slit his throat with her combat knife. She then repeated the process on the bandit guarding the western side.

    The remaining bandit on the northern side turned around. Before he could do anything more than turn, her knife flew into his face. She darted up to him, ripped it free and slashed his throat. Heart racing, Jessica gave herself a moment to calm her nerves, and get back to the job.

    She went to work on the ropes with all of the stealth she’d been trained with. There was only the faintest hint of a snap as the ropes finally, and Jessica gently lowered them to hang from the pillars. Within ten minutes Modok was free.

    “Who-” Modok started to say, until a finger pressed against the half-troll’s lips.

    Jessica’s instructions were to-the-point. “Don’t speak. Walk as quietly as you can. I’ll guide you.”

    She grabbed his arm and led him from the table. Together, invisible, they tip-toed out of the cafe to their waiting comrades.

    ###

    Jarred and David had found a spot to hide in the body-height shrubbery above the small cliff. They had been still and silent for the last fifteen minutes.
    Jarred was no stranger to being patient, though this was testing it, and time spent waiting was time he wasn’t getting back. David, on the other hand, was fidgeting.

    “It’s taking a while,” David whispered.

    “She’s gotta be stealthy,” Jarred replied. “You can’t rush stealth.”

    “I’m getting worried.”

    At that moment Modok appeared, and the three of them instantly looked more alive. But they didn’t see Jessica with him. David

    “Tesla Squad rescue Modok,” the half-troll ascertained. “Modok not like stupid bandits.”

    “Jess?” Jarred ventured.

    “Oh, right,” Jessica’s voice exclaimed, right before she appeared beside Modok. “Oh, that feels better.”

    “Shooty girl rescue Modok,” Modok said. “Modok in shooty girl’s debt.”

    “It was nothing,” Jessica said. “Just another everyday mission to rescue a troll from some bandits. And the best part is they probably don’t even know you’re gone!”

    That was when the sound of vehicles revving greeted them from the street, as footsteps came pouring up the steps.

    “Run!” Jarred ordered. The group gladly obeyed.

  10. #10
    Personally, I like it, but I'm aware most people prefer more than less in text. So you might want to work a little more on fleshing out emotions and sensations, not necessarily the plot. The pace can remain, but the reader may need to see more hesitation, fear, anger, etc.

    It comes down to knowing what makes the characters tick.

    Igor

  11. #11
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    How in the world does a troll tip-toe?

    The text seems to be somewhat satirical. So a sparseness focusing on dialogue for the humor works fine, as does most of the general orientation. You may want to add a few more details. For instance, when Jess slashes the guards throats, it's casually disposed of in two sentences. You might want to have her sneak more. You might want the sneaking around to be a little more uncertain, a bit more of a scare. You might want to add a bit more detail to their getting out of the cafe. The troll does not seem to become invisible when Jess touches him, so are they getting him out of the cafe easily just because they killed the three guards? Were there no actual sniper guards in the apartment buildings to notice that the cafe guards were missing? So that's a bit confusing at the end, maybe, as if you're rushing it.

    You might want to have Jess observe more details when rescuing the troll -- more details about the troll. There are things that you probably saw in your head, that Jess saw, and they may be useful detail, atmosphere, etc. for the audience, but they aren't on the page. Right now, Jess is very methodical, if anxious, and she may be a methodical character, but she doesn't seem to have much of a character voice. I don't really know the character's personality much from the text and that can be what bores some readers. I know that David fidgets and that Jarred is more patient, so that gives me a quick snap of them. I know Jess can use a knife, but I don't know how she relates to her knifes and her profession -- is she Zen, detached, excited, rageful, etc.?

    When Jess thinks that she has to be like a ghost, there's emotion to it; it tells us something about Jess, but you'll notice it doesn't require a great deal of additional text -- instead it ties the details you've described together. That's the job of metaphor and simile. Don't be afraid to use them to give description an additional dimension and some emotion because it is the character who thinks "I have to be like a ghost," it's the character who has that idea and emotion in his or her or its head. Therefore, the choice of "I have to be like a ghost," tells us one thing. "I have to be like a gentle breeze" does the same thing but tells us a different aspect of a different character. "I have to be empty space," and so on and so forth. The words you choose do the work, for their sound, rhythm and meaning, for the many pieces of information they deliver at once, for the way that they focus and direct the minds of the readers.

    The second section is in third person omniscient. Did you want it to be or did you want the whole thing in Jarred's pov? The scene is setting up for the jokes of Jess forgetting she's invisible, the troll speaking broken English and them congratulating themselves at sneaking away clean to then hear the bad guys coming for them. Again, it seems rushed at the end when you do that joke: how did the group obey the order to run? Did they scatter? Did one of them take charge of the troll? So there, it seems that you're concentrating more on the funny than the funny and the characters and info details. It can be okay to concentrate on just the funny at points or in general, but it's good to be aware that you are doing that and to have a goal in doing it that way, a rhythm, atmosphere and purpose to the funny beyond just some action and dialogue bits. The funny can actually get funnier the more you put the character into it, such as the troll being a troll funny. (And yes, I do think some more description of the troll would be nice as troll can mean any number of things depending on the world. Even if the troll has already been described before in the story, reminding us of things can work well, like if the troll has curly hair or no hair, if he has dirty fingernails or charming yellow eyes, whatever.)

    And again, it doesn't require enormous amounts of added text. It just means looking at what your words are doing and usually that's multiple jobs. The action scene is first off an action scene that advances plot -- rescuing the troll from the bandits. But second, the action scene is a way to show the characters. Third, the scene is a way to build atmosphere of the world in which the characters live. Fourth, the scene is a way to lay down material and info for what is to come further down in the book. Fifth, the scene is a way to develop the themes of the story (and the themes can be anything from elite assassins rock the world to explorations of grief, shame, torture, etc.) Sixth, the scene is a way to deliver jokes which also can engage readers in story and character. Seventh,.....you get the idea. You're doing a lot in each bit of text. So is all the text you need for that there? Does it sound good besides just the dialogue jokes? Did you get everything in? Is it clear where you want it to be clear?

    Again, if you can, if a prelim reader has a problem, grill the reader. Find out what the root of discontent was. "It's boring and brief" doesn't help much. What didn't they like specifically in the scene, about the characters, dialogue, etc. Was it confusing? Which parts felt most rushed? Etc. Then you can find out if the input can help you.

  12. #12
    Is Winter Coming? R.J.'s Avatar
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    This is something I've been given a lot of thought as well. I tend to oversaturate whatever I'm drafting with description, losing myself in the vision I have, often because I really want to convey a certain mood or describe properly what I want the reader to see, even though I *know* that is pointless - I mean, even with the leanest descriptions I "see" things when I read them.

    What has helped me focus a little bit is doing these flash fictions on this site, but that is kind of the opposite of where you're at I guess Anyway, interesting topic.

    I have to say, though, that in some novels I am annoyed if I don't get a proper description, and that is something Steven Erikson can be skimpy with (even though he is awesome at most other things) - I am almost done with his latest novel "Forge of Darkness" and though much of it leaves me slackjawed and in awe at his talent and experimental derring-do I still have no clue how to visualize the most important location in the novel.

    I think George RR Martin did a great job balancing description and action in the first three novels of his series, almost pitch perfect. Unfortunately he went way overboard (on the description side of things) with the later books, but I do feel the first three are, for me anyway, almost a template for this balancing.

  13. #13
    Registered User SilentDan's Avatar
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    Yeah, it's a fine line getting it spot-on, and even then, some want little, some want lots, and some don't know what they want.

    Good critique, thanks!

    PS: that wasn't the scene someone said was "boring and pointless". I don't think I still have that one.

  14. #14
    >:|Angry Beaver|:< Fung Koo's Avatar
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    A "rule" I was given from Alastair MacLeod via a prof I had in university that I have found useful in self-critique -- if you're going to bother mentioning some object that is important to a character, make sure you describe it well enough that the reader knows exactly what it's like.

    I tended toward the too-sparse when I started writing, and then I ended up being the way-too-much purple-prose sort of writer. I like to think I'm approaching a balance, and I find it by referencing this "rule" -- if the object isn't important to the character, it doesn't need a lot of description. A general sense of it will usually do. But, if it's immediately relevant to a character, or to a plot point that is about to affect a character with some degree of significance, the description should be roughly balance to the relevance/significance for the character.

    So, one example was a story I wrote about a band that had a flag they made out of one of the characters childhood blankies. I had initially described it with about that much level of detail -- I think I said something like "We stuck the band's flag, a worn out old baby blanket of Xavier's, to the porous cinder-block wall using Keir's room keys."

    I thought that was adequate when I first wrote it. I wanted to hint at a secondary character having a life beyond the story, and I thought the baby blanket worked for that. But given that the rest of the text was similarly fairly sparse, the feedback was that it was a flat, boring, seemingly irrelevant detail. What did it matter that it was a baby blanket, specifically? Why had I bothered to add that detail when that's the only moment in the story its mentioned? "But!" I protested -- I wanted to keep it, it mattered for the character. Thus the MacLeodean advice.

    In the end, that sentence became: "When Xavier reappeared he had his guitar, amp, and baby blanket. Even before he plugged his gear in, the blanket went up on the wall opposite his amp. Keir tossed him his room keys for makeshift tacks. He said it was to cut down the reverb in the bloque, but we never quite believed him. After all, why did he have it with him in the first place? Ever after, that red, plaid, quilted blanket was our flag. "

    The main difference, I think, was that instead of just saying "We put up a flag, it was a baby blanket," I was encouraged to make the process of putting up the flag more important, and then treat it as an opportunity to develop the character. Why a baby blanket? To tell the truth, I wasn't certain exactly why it mattered that much, and I didn't want to delve into a long history of the blanket, so I basically just added the question into the story, then gave a specific visual description of it so it had an "appearance" in the mind of the reader. The feedback I got changed significantly -- that it made the character Xavier more human, and that it did actually matter then that it was a baby blanket.

    I think the idea is to make items that matter somewhat talismanic in the story. They have to "ring" a bit with the reader. The same goes for the setting, especially in secondary worldbuilding scenarios. The reader has to know where they are and what's happening, but beyond that, the setting itself has to matter to the characters that are interacting with it, especially when it's the SFF element in play.

    I've pasted a section of your text below and bolded-in questions where I think there's an opportunity to give the description a tweak and give it added relevance for the characters.

    Jarred and David had found a spot to hide in the body-height shrubbery (why is it body height? is it manicured this way? young growth?) above the small cliff (what does the cliff overlook? what sort of rock makes up the cliff face?). They had been still and silent for the last fifteen minutes.

    Jarred was no stranger to being patient, though this was testing it, and time spent waiting was time he wasn’t getting back. David, on the other hand, was fidgeting (with what? is he shifting around his whole body? picking loose skin from his nails? etc. is this a repetitive habit of the character?).

    “It’s taking a while,” David whispered.

    “She’s gotta be stealthy,” Jarred replied. “You can’t rush stealth.”

    “I’m getting worried.”

    At that moment Modok appeared (how? is he out of breath? burst on the scene or sneak up? how did they not see him from their high vantage point?), and the three of them instantly looked more alive. But they didn’t see Jessica with him. David

    “Tesla Squad rescue Modok,” the half-troll ascertained. “Modok not like stupid bandits.”

    “Jess?” Jarred ventured.

    “Oh, right,” Jessica’s voice exclaimed, right before she appeared beside Modok (same question - appeared from where? how?). “Oh, that feels better.” (what feels better?)

    “Shooty girl rescue Modok,” Modok said. “Modok in shooty girl’s debt.”

    “It was nothing,” Jessica said. “Just another everyday mission to rescue a troll from some bandits. And the best part is they probably don’t even know you’re gone!”

    That was when the sound of vehicles revving greeted them from the street (where did this street come from? is it below the cliff?), as footsteps came pouring up the steps (where did these steps come from?).

    “Run!” Jarred ordered. The group gladly obeyed.

  15. #15
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    But the change did more than just develop the one character -- it developed all the characters, effected the setting and atmosphere and helped advance the story as a motif. So it's not a matter of describing something that is important to a character. It's directing the reader's focus to something you the author find important as a tool for developing the whole story.

    I'm not entirely clear whether the pov voice is one character there or an omni narrator collective we, but let's look at it from one narrating character. The first version, the pov character just observed -- baby blanket, and gave info -- we made it a flag -- without context. But pov characters not only observe, but react, feel, assess, interpret, analyze, decide etc., all the time, providing multiple strands of info to readers. So in the changed version, the pov character is analyzing things about Xavier but also the whole group. Through the pov character, we see that the group does find it ridiculous that Xavier has the baby blanket and wants to put it up, but they also accept his stated reason for it as bonding; they accept that it is important, that it speaks to his past and theirs. They help him -- Keir loans his keys for wall tacks. And they adopt the symbol as their own, just as they take his pain into their group together. The pov character has a voice, and a style to that voice -- a style that has a rhythm for the character, and that is staccato, short sentences. It's not a lot more text. But it now is not just description, it's working narrative, character voice and a wealth of info for the reader on story and characters.

    A pov character can have a short, punchy way of thinking. But that pov character still gives a perspective, a context, a style to all that is observed. And that pov character's gaze is used to focus the reader on what the author feels is important, that may symbolize the scene, emotions, relationships, story. It can be anything from a beam of sunlight hitting a chair to a very complex description of engine parts. It doesn't have to be long, but it does have to be the voice that you want. We still don't really know exactly why that baby blanket was important to Xavier, or even exactly why the others made it their flag. But we can sense the emotion in general of these things and the bonds it builds between the characters from the way the pov character tells us about them.

    And we can also know that a pov character is being misleading or mistaken -- the reader doesn't slavishly follow the pov character's focus and wording. That's why you get so many different interpretations from readers -- the readers are also observing, reacting, assessing, interpreting, analyzing and deciding about the narrative.

    So "styles" don't exist in a vacuum separate from story. Which is why one style is not the right style for all novels of one type, all authors or all stories because each author is saying different things with words that resonate differently for everyone who reads (or hears) them. If your style is short and punchy, then it's short and punchy and that can be useful for effects you want. But you do want to make sure that the style is conveying or figuring out the info in your head. Fung knew that baby blanket was important to him; he just had to figure out how he wanted to show that to the readers, and that meant engaging the pov character more and giving more info from that character.

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