When novels are bloated with an excessive word count, the extra words are often where you’d least expect them.
In fact, when I’m editing, I often find that very long novels are among the most tightly plotted. The authors know the word count is a problem, so they trim all the extra scenes and streamline the storytelling.
So how do these novels still end up way too long?
It’s almost always at the sentence and the paragraph level. When nearly every sentence has a few unnecessary words and nearly every paragraph has a sentence or two that’s already apparent from context, it really, really adds up. Over the course of a novel these small, seemingly innocuous redundancies can mean tens of thousands of extra words.
I’ve talked about a few different ways of paring back your word count, but today I want to focus on one pratfall in particular: over-explaining default objects and gestures.
When to let the default suffice
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we all have roughly standard ideas of everyday objects and gestures. If you read about a hammer in a novel that a character uses to hit a nail, you and I might have very slightly different mental images but they’re roughly going to conform to a “standard” hammer. Something like this.
It’s not necessary to spend a paragraph describing what this particular hammer looks like. It’s just a hammer. Unless there’s some reason this particular hammer departs from the norm or some characteristic will be important later on…just let it be a hammer.
So, for instance, when you’re describing a car, you don’t need to point out that the car has “round black rubber tires.” That’s the default. Unless you tell us otherwise, we’re just going to assume that a car has black tires.
This extends to gestures as well. Sometimes I’ll see descriptions like:
Nathan stretched his right arm and extended an index finger toward the object that caught his interest.
So, uh… “Nathan pointed?” You can just say that!
And look, I just saved 15 words. If you pare back just two excessive sentences on every page of a 500 page novel, that’s 15,000 words right there.
When to be more specific
So when should you be more specific?
When it’s important and additive that the object departs from the default.
If Nathan pointed with a wink or stood on his head and pointed with his big toe, then sure, describe that in more detail. If a car has neon pink square tires, describe that. If the fact that the hammer’s handle is rubber is a detail that matters to the story somehow, point it out.
But if it’s just your usual everyday point.. just let the character point. If they’re round black tires, just call them tires or leave them out entirely and trust that the reader will just infer they’re there and won’t assume the car is levitating.
Even if you’re creating a novel that’s stylistically unique, I still think it pays to be cognizant of this principle. Avoid bogging down the reader in interminable descriptions of the everyday unless there’s some particular reason you want to point out a specific detail.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Detail of Last minutes of False Dmitry I by Carl Gottlieb Wenig
Ken Hughes says
A solid rule.
There’s something to be said for stopping to notice an odd thing about an object, like pointing out how the tires gleam in the sun… but that urge does need to be taken with a grain of salt. Why does the narration “notice” the tires right then (and instead of the whole body of the car)? Is there a momentary good-enough reason for that, or is it just the writer picking something random to flesh out an image? There’s a difference between tires that are in better shape than the car, or a monster truck where you might get a better view of the tires than the car above them, and just “every writer spotlights cars — so, do the tires!”
And even then, style means consistency. If we don’t have a pace that normally takes a moment for that car (or its tires), it looks random to do it now. And if we do, we should be well aware of what it takes to give that moment to tires.
Krista Douglas says
I’m still training myself to give the reader credit for connecting the dots, even when I don’t explain every detail. It is a tough habit to break but necessary.