BrianWFoster’s Seventh Law of Writing

Seventh Law: Seek Clarity

If your goal is to engage your reader, you must make your writing clear.  Few mistakes will remove the reader from the flow of the story faster than having to figure out what you’re trying to convey.

Applies to What, not Why:

It’s important to remember that what is happening needs to be shown in vivid detail.  The reader should be able to follow that POV character in his mind without stumbling over your prose.  The why of a character’s actions, however, can be left to the imagination.

Write Sequentially:

Joe approaches the door.  Joe fishes a key from his pocket.  Joe inserts the key.  Joe turns the key.  Joe opens the door.

NOT

Joe inserts the key which he had taken out of his pocket.  Then, Joe opens the door after he had approached it.  Joe had unlocked the door.

Keep the order of actions in the text the order in which they happen.

Obviously, the first example above is too choppy.  You could change it to read:

Joe approached the door and fished a key from his pocket.  After inserting the key, he turned it and opened the door. 

Note that I still use “after,” but I kept the order of the words consistent with the order of the actions.  Also note that this method eliminates the need for “then.”  If you find yourself using that word outside of dialogue, you need to examine it.

Determine the Appropriate Level of Detail:

My final example above is quite clear.  It’s also boring, especially if you extrapolate that level of detail to an entire scene, chapter, or even, shudder, book.  Does the reader need to see Joe do all these steps?  What can be eliminated for brevity while retaining clarity?

That’s a judgment call that the author has to make.  That’s also why God gave us beta readers.

An example from a scene from Power of the Mages:

After poking Will, Brant rose from his bedroll.   They strode toward the wooded area behind the campground trying to appear like they couldn’t be bothered to walk all the way to the latrine.

Both boys, Brant and Will, had been shown on the ground.  I decided that I needed to show Brant getting up so that the reader didn’t have to think, “He’s walking?  But I thought he was on the ground.”  I decided, though, that showing Will do the same would be overkill.  The reader can easily interpret from the text that Will rose as well.

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