a nutshell, compression is using verbs,
adjectives, and nouns packed with meaning. When your writing is
effectively compressed, (1) your narrative and action will be more
vivid, and (2) you’ll use fewer words. Pardon the analogy, but imagine
a large bag filled with trash compared with a similar bag in a trash
compactor. The latter packs in two to three times as much trash. And as
a result, you’ll use fewer bags.
We often refer to “lean” or
“tight” writing to mean the elimination
of unnecessary words. Compression is much more than lean writing. I’ve
seen writing that’s very lean but also lacking in vividness. Sometimes
editing for the pure sake of leanness can result in writing that
reminds me of a room filled with only Scandinavian furniture. Nothing
wrong with Scandinavian furniture, mind you. It boasts clean lines and
is very functional. Still, by itself it’s rather boring. I’d want to
add a few pictures, a green plant here and there, a knick-knack or two.
Now you’ve got a room with some personality.
Here’s a more specific look at
how compression works.
1. Vividness springs
from effective word choice.
Vividness can encompass both
individual words and phrases. Writing
vividly means writing in a way that creates a picture in your reader’s
head. In action scenes, this “picture” often is a specific movement or
facial expression. In narrative passages this “picture” helps your
reader grasp a certain truth about your character.
Just as with sentence rhythm
(discussed in this column during the
past two months), compression requires careful attention to verbs,
especially during action scenes. You want to find those verbs with the
most bang for the buck. The key is to use the most specific verb
possible. Many are too general to be descriptive. These include verbs
such as stand, look, see, walk, move, talk, sit,
etc. If your character is sitting, is he slouching? Slumping? Perching?
Notice how these verbs connote the character’s attitude
as he sits. Slouching gives the impression of laziness or perhaps
defiance; slumping shows despondence or fatigue; perching connotes high
energy or nervousness. In the same way, if your character is looking at
someone or something, how is he looking? How is he walking, moving,
standing, etc.? Sometimes these questions are answered by adding an
adverb. But we know how easy it is to fall into -ly writing.
Adverbs are necessary once in awhile. But if you can replace a general
verb and its adverb with one specific verb, do it.
For narrative passages or
description, in addition to finding the
most specific verb, pay attention to adjectives and nouns. Look for
unusual ways to express your thoughts. Sometimes a metaphor or simile
can release a whole aura of meaning that would otherwise need two or
three sentences of explanation. Nature and everyday life are your best
sources for discovering these unique descriptions. Pay attention to the
world around you. Notice how wind ruffles water or moves over a wheat
field. How a cat stalks its prey. Hear the click of knitting needles,
the crackle of a fire. Note how mist clings to your hair on a foggy
day, how your breath hangs in a vapor in the cold. Any one of these
natural occurrences releases a vivid mental picture that can be used in
The use of vivid verbs and
descriptive phrases naturally gives way to the second benefit of
2. Vividness leads to
the elimination of excess words.
Sometimes just one vivid word
can negate the need for an entire
“telling” sentence or even a paragraph. We’ve all heard the (in)famous
piece of writing advice, “show, don’t tell.” Still, we fall into the
telling trap all too often, merely because telling is so easy. The
danger of telling writing is two-fold. First, there is absolutely
nothing captivating about it. And second, excess words will cause your
story to drag.
Remember that vivid writing
requires specificity. When you’ve hit on
that just-right compressed word or phrase, you’ll no longer need
general, telling description. You can cut long phrases and sentences
merely designed to explain.
see how compression can lead to vividness
and excess word elimination, let’s take a before and after look at the
opening of my true crime, A Question of Innocence:
Sharri Moore had read her
daughter’s diaries more times than she
could remember. She had to, Sharri rationalized as she looked at
Serena’s blue-flowered journal lying on the desk. Sometimes she found
important things in the diaries. A lot of the entries were just teenage
stuff about girls who’d been kind to Serena only to be mad at her the
next day. Serena would write about these girls with anger and confused
betrayal. Other entries were about daydreams or hoped-for things. But
sometimes the entries showed aspects of Serena that she would never
reveal. Sharri considered these entries nuggets of gold.
The same passage as it was
published, using compression:
When it came to her daughter’s
diary, Sharri Moore was a snoop. And
with good reason, she thought, eyeing Serena’s blue-flowered journal as
it lay on the desk. Buried among the fantasies, the teenage yearnings,
the diatribes against snotty schoolgirls who dangled their friendship
like candy beyond a baby’s reach, lay occasional nuggets of gold.
Glints of the real Serena.
Note how specific words and
phrases add vividness in the second version:
The explanation that Sharri “. . . had read her daughter’s diary more
times than she could remember” is now summarized by the word “snoop.”
This one noun connotes not only the tendency to peek into her
daughter’s affairs but to do it consciously and consistently.
B. “Looked” becomes “eyeing,” a
more intense verb.
C. Two general, telling
sentences are no longer needed: “Sometimes
she found important things in the diaries” and “A lot of the entries
were just teenage stuff.”
D. “Daydreams” and “hoped-for
things” become the stronger words
“fantasies” and “teenage yearnings.” The sentences about other girls
and Serena’s reaction to them now use vivid words such as “diatribes,”
“snotty,” and “dangled friendship.” The simile “like candy beyond a
baby’s reach” conjures a mental picture of how tantalizing these fickle
friendships were to Serena.
E. The metaphor of buried gold
amid uninteresting diary entries is a
vivid portrayal of just how much Sharri treasured these bits of
Compression requires ruthless
editing. And learning it takes time
and practice. But it’s worth the work. Compression can make a huge
difference in the vividness of your scenes and the pacing of your
from Getting Into
Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn