How to Compress Your Fiction — for Power, part 2

Using vivid verbs and descriptive phrases naturally produces the second benefit of compression:

Eliminating excess words

One vivid word can negate the need for an entire “telling” sentence—or even a paragraph. We’ve all heard, “show, don’t tell.” Still we often fall into the telling trap, because telling is so easy. But telling carries two dangers. First, it’s never captivating. Second, excess words cause your story to drag.

Vivid writing requires specificity. When you hit on that just-right word or phrase, you no longer need general, telling description. You can cut long phrases and sentences designed merely to explain.

To see how compression works, take a before and after look at the opening of my true crime story, 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 in the second version, specific words and phrases add vividness:

● The explanation that Sharri “had read her daughter’s diary more times than she could remember” gets summarized by the word snoop. This one noun connotes not only the tendency to peek into her daughter’s affairs, but also to do so consciously and consistently.

● Looked becomes eyeing, a more intense verb.

Two telling sentences are no longer needed: “Sometimes she found important things in the diaries” and “A lot of the entries were just teenage stuff.”

Daydreams and hoped-for things become the stronger terms fantasies and teenage yearnings.

The sentences about Serena’s reaction to other girls now use vivid terms such as diatribes, snotty, and dangled friendship.

The simile “like candy beyond a baby’s reach” conjures a picture of how tantalizing these fickle friendships were to Serena.

The metaphor of buried gold amid uninteresting diary entries vividly portrays how much Sharri treasured these bits of information.

Compression requires ruthless editing. Learning to compress your writing takes time and practice. But it’s worth the work.

Adapted from Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins.

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense. She has appeared on numerous TV and radio talk shows, including Phil Donahue, Leeza, and The 700 Club. Brandilyn is also known for her distinctive book on fiction techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons). Read the first chapters of all her books at www.brandilyncollins.com.

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