I like the sound of that word. What it represents. Not all words are like that. How does precision, a very direct and precise word apply to something like writing that can appear from the outside to be playing Legos with words? Choices. We have thousands of word choices. Every character, every scene, every dialogue. Nuance words. BAM words. Words that economize, words that billow out and take up space. Words that define, words that obfuscate, words that lead. Making the choices, that’s the hardest part. Because I can throw down draft as it runs through my head and get close. But then? The work starts.
First, I’ll abuse myself. In THG 3.7 a good deal of word time was spent on describing the flat. I had a reason, a couple of choices, made one that will still work once pared down. The reasoning was “see it through the character.” She lives there, not me. I got busted for that by an editor once. Here it is –
Deanna issued a sleepy snuffle sob, rolled out of a fetal position on her bed, hit the floor on all fours. She dropped her forehead into the shades-of-pink shag carpet in her bedroom, felt a small, cool, bony hand between her shoulder blades.
“Gramma Cora? How long have you –”
The editorial comment was “Why do we have to feel this through Deanna? Why not direct action?”
Consider this. A big shot editor bought into my characters early on, not far from here, and instead of reading the first 20 pages and sending me a quote she read it all. This is a touchy-feely scene. I intentionally put the experience through the character. Now, a professional someone, who bought into it for the very reason of investment in the character wants to hit the equation button and suggest destroying intimacy with the character. Huh? Based on what? A Rule? Something more precise? Precision is how we sculpt our characters and our work, not a formula.
The Hard-Boiled school cuts to the chase. That is not an imperative, even inside the genre, because they can hit the detail switch when needed. Even then, the good ones do it so well you are sold on a character, a situation, a scene – with great economy and precision language. In THG 3.10 I tried that, just for grins, by describing a musical instrument without using any musical vernacular. And three characters with indirect descriptions or third-party information/observation.
On occasion a short string of precise language evokes exactly what you need. Watch a master do that very thing –
They came down to the marina dock in John Tuckerman’s big blue Chrysler Imperial. John Tuckerman was a sort of unofficial assistant to Hub Lawless. He didn’t seem to hold any particular office in any of Hub’s many corporations and partnerships. But he always seemed to be around, laughing, making jokes, making sure of air reservations, hotel reservations, dockage space, hanger space, and so on. They brought two young women aboard. Half the ages of Hub and Tuckerman. Tight pants and airline carry-ons. Perfume and giggles. *
We know what’s going on. We know about both men and their guests and a setup for some future action. From some very precise language. Lawless from Tuckerman’s job description (indirect). Not Jill and Jane and who they are. Perfume and giggles (direct). Later you could split them up that way, if you needed to talk to them. ‘Lieutenant Rogers took the tall, walking perfume counter and I sat down with her partner, a short redheaded professional giggler.’ Regardless. All you need is all you need when you need it.
Song lyrics can do that. Everybody’s heard this one – “A singer in a smoky room. The smell of wine and cheap perfume.”** BAM. There. Whether you’ve been there or seen it a thousand times on TV, you’re there. Precise and economical. Dylan got a Nobel Prize. Often picturesque, not always economical or precise, always a storyteller. “Tangled Up in Blue” is as easily a condition as it is a song title.
Precision language makes short work of what might be considered mundane or difficult tasks. Elmore Leonard (and Steinbeck) suggest not spending too much time describing characters. Particularly main characters. They should belong to the reader. But precision language for bit players, the nemesis, the sideshow, makes loading them into the work much easier because you don’t have to spend time getting to know them and making them work. Or even, as I have witnessed in a number of works, not bothering to give them names. Because, in a group scene, names will kill you. And overload your dialogue tags quota. If, in a scene with four or six or more people, you impose on the reader to remember six or seven names you dug up on a random name generator or researched the meaning of, it’s all gone. The reader walks, all your hard work naming someone who will get shot or eaten or carried off by a Phoenix anyway is wasted. If there are characters the reader has spent time with, use those names, and the interlopers get descriptions. Precision. It’s easier to visualize for the author AND the reader without remembering a name. I did that here, just to see. The scene is action that gets a main character off the mud and back in the game without “all hell broke loose and Mick got away.” Because what the hell kind of cop-out is that, and why read something that doesn’t take you for a ride? Boots and Boxers, Plaid Pants and Red Converses don’t need names at the point of BAM. Bottom line – Authors and readers don’t need a meet and greet on everybody involved.
I suggested in a comment elsewhere that a quick introduction scene was the perfect place to drop character nuggets without overkill. Short, tall, hairy, mercenary. Think harder, direct descriptive words as well. Mousey, fraudulent, a new favorite “shit speck,” deliberate, pensive, fawning, a rednosed walking Kleenex ad, a lip balm addict with an effected limp… uh-oh, muse attack – a contrived, prissy, arrogant and morally bankrupt man full of nothing but a theatrical impression of himself and the faintest whisper of soul. BAM. I liked that one.
Homework. Go find a character you spent too much time, or not enough time on, and give them no more than three, short and precise language lines. No adverb-ly fluff. Direct and precise. Nail them down and move on. While I go fix Deanna meets her flat.
* Excerpted from The Empty Copper Sea © 1978 by John D. MacDonald Publishing Inc.
** “Don’t Stop Believin’” Perry-Cain-Schon © 1981 Weed High Nightmare Music