Nov 6, 2011

Characteristics of overwriting

I've been doing a lot of critiquing lately and have come eyeball-to-page with this ugly symptom of first drafts. If your MS is a face - a perfect, symmetrical face of beauty - then overwriting is like an overbite. As soon as your story opens its mouth, overwriting is revealed. Readers are caught staring at it, rather than the whole story.

Since so many are in the middle of NaNo,  here are three common manifestations of this problem: too much telling, purple prose and too many stage directions. Find others at this great post by writer Cheryl Reif here.

Too much telling. "The sight of her made me feel awful. I felt queasy, my stomach lurched, sweat broke out on my whole body. She was really sick. She threw up buckets of green liquid and could barely breathe from wretching."

See what happened there? I told you what was happening and then showed you. Was it necessary that I tell you I felt awful/queasy? That I tell you she felt sick? No. Because I showed you in the next sentences. Telling-and-then-showing assumes your reader is an idiot. Give us the tools and we'll figure it out. Promise.

Purple prose. "His smile was a ghastly grimace. As wretched tears rolled down her trembling cheeks, she wondered if she'd ever see the light of day again. The knife blade was only inches from her pearly white throat. He laughed a maniacal laugh, his teeth tiny points of malice."

Oy. That was disturbingly easy to write. Those sentences are littered with adjectives/adverbs that are another form of telling. We get carried away by our own awesomeness, by the idea we can paint a picture with words instead of what isn't said. Let me say that again: what ISN'T said. The most effective writing is one that gives the reader enough info to populate his/her own imagination. It's a fine line and one that can years to perfect. Let's see if I can demo this right off the cuff:
"He grimaced so she saw his pointed teeth. Tears snaked down her cheeks, hot trails of fear fueled by the knife at her neck."
Far fewer words, yet a much bigger impace on the reader. Or so I hope. You'll have to tell ME which is better. (This is a subjective business, no?)

Too many stage directions.  "Hey," he said, sitting down next to me on the top stair. He put his backpack down and crossed his left leg, angling himself so he faced me.
"Hey," I said back, giving him a half smile so my dead tooth didn't show. I combed my hair with my fingers and then braided it into a single braid as thick as my wrist. "What's going on?"
"Not much." He rummaged in his backpack for an apple. It was red and had a bruise. He held it out to me with his right hand. The fingernail was broken on his index finger.

*sounds of choking*  Um... I don't care how they're sitting or if someone has a mole on their left butt cheek. (Unless the mole is somehow diabolically related to the plot in an intrinsic way.) I want to read the dialogue or experience another plot point, not feel like I'm trapped by every single move the MC makes. Good writing is all about the right kind of detail. Constant updates on the way somebody combs their hair usually don't fall in that category.

Those are my three...and I wrestle with them often. What's your idea of overwriting? Please share with examples in the comments.


mooderino said...

hi Melodie,

I agree with your list.

I find writers often get carried away when describing what a character looks like, and gnerally the desire to make sure the reader is getting the picture makes them describe the same thing from umpteen angles.

Moody Writing

Sarah Pearson said...

Purple prose - that's me. If there are three great ways to describe something, first time round I'll probably use them all :-)

Julie Musil said...

Um, I've been guilty of this sort of thing. I don't worry about it during draft one, but slash and burn during the second draft.

Carrie Butler said...

I blame elementary school. They should've never encouraged us to explain, when we brought things in for Show and Tell. ;)

Alynza Smith said...

Great tips! I recently re-read the first draft of my book that was written two years ago. Let's just say "Egads!" It was horribly purple.

Deana said...

Ha! I don't know, sometimes I may want to know if they have a mole on their left butt cheek:)

In reality, very good points!

Lisa L. Regan said...

Great post! Really good stuff. Why do they call it PURPLE prose by the way? I've always wondered.

Nancy Thompson said...

Oh God, you've picked out my top pet peeves! But you did them so well!! Great post!

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Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

This is a great post! I especially liked the trembling cheeks in your purple prose. I was trying to visualize that! Purple prose is really easy for me to write, too. Scary!! :)