The Rayne Tour
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.

Compression—Lean Yet Vivid Writing

In 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 description.

The use of vivid verbs and descriptive phrases naturally gives way to the second benefit of compression:

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.

To 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:

A. 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 information.

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 story.


Excerpted from Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins.

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