Writing too MUCH nuance

Not wanting to leave too much to chance – or the possible misinterpretation of a reader – leads to a phenomenon I will call ‘too much nuance.’

Here’s a sample paragraph with it (it leaves little to the imagination – I blame brain fog):

On the morning of his important day, which was on the 12th of April that year, and which that year fell on a Wednesday which was unseasonably cold and blustery, Terry and his mother (well, not his actual mother, but the woman who adopted him when his biological mother abandoned him at the orphanage) walked into the Food Court on the lower level of the Grantham, Oklahoma, Freedom Mall which was opened in 1989 and has only been closed two days since, to find themselves at one of the food booths which sold a nutritious hot breakfast, including the option of getting the egg-white-only omelet that Terry always ate because his doctor said that his cholesterol was too high and he shouldn’t eat egg yolks at all, or, if he did, it shouldn’t be very often (and he defined very often as more than once a week), before they went to the Sears department store at the south end of the Mall for Terry to have a job interview as a salesperson in the lawnmower department, because he needed a job.

Here is the same paragraph, stripped to a bare possible version of its former self:

Terry’s mom bought him a hot breakfast at the Mall before his interview at SEARS. Terry requested the egg-white omelet because he liked to think he was eating healthy, and it made him a good candidate to sell lawnmowers.

Or some such, depending on how you are trying to present Terry.

Too much nuance comes from not trusting readers

The fault originates, with me, in not trusting the reader to ‘get it.’ Or not enough, anyway. Or to get it, but miss the little side trails that make writing so interesting. Or to get it, but fail to see an important connection to the backstory. Or to another character. Or the theme. Or…

And there’s the rub. The ‘correct’ interpretation of a scene is not a local thing. It is a global thing.

In fact, too much detail, nuance, in scene after scene, leads to exactly what you don’t want as a writer: chunks of ‘nuance’ that get rudely skipped as the reader skims our careful prose – out of a surfeit of ‘nuance.’ Attention fatigue.

First person and close third pov have an additional hidden peril. Because the writer has access to the characters’ thoughts, and because all of us think too much – the mental chatter going on in your head is enough to drive you bonkers, and some to drink and drugs – we buy it when the writer steps over the line from showing (giving us the few key thoughts) to using these pov’s to tell and tell and tell – but we’re bored.

Readers are SMART. They catch these things scarily fast – they don’t know why you’ve stepped over the line, but boy, oh boy, do they pick up instantly that SOMETHING is wrong. They can’t put their frontal lobe on it (not unless they are also writers, and even then not immediately), but they know they are BORED. And need to skip/skim/throw the book against the wall.

Regaining attention is much harder than keeping it

They say that in the theater the audience starts rustling in its seats after 5-10 seconds, and the play had better get interesting very quickly again, or you’ve lost them. For good.

It takes a lot more work to get their attention back than it took when they sat down and offered it to you as a gift.

You’ve broken trust – and it’s going to take a lot of hard work to regain it.

They trusted you with their TIME, their most precious gift, the one thing they can never get back, and you squandered it.

This reader-fury is the source of many 1-star reviews on Amazon: you wasted their time. Not their money – some of the most vicious reviews come from people who’ve been given a free book – because money can be replaced. Their time.

How much can you put in?

So the rule is: put in about as much ‘stuff’ as you would put raisins in good oatmeal cookies – and surround them with cookie dough. It is a matter of taste, but it is like playing a game of hide-the-raisins for some child who needs the iron but doesn’t really like raisins. If someone wants raisin clumps, they’ll eat them out of the box.

I write the scene first, with a story arc, and a character who changes in some way, with conflict and tension and plot.

Then I look at my list of ‘stuff’: information, description, backstory, and cull it until it is as short a list as I can have, and still get in the parts the reader absolutely must have.

Add the optional elements: things the reader will NEED later, foreshadowing and forewarning and motivation – but think hard about whether this scene is the place for them, or whether it would make sense to delay the information even longer.

Where to put the nuggets?

These I call [musings] if they are thoughts by the pov character.
And then I look for places where it would make sense for the pov character to have a moment of thought – and I plop a [musing] in.

Action breaks in dialogue work especially well. Instead of:

“It’s happening again. I always notice it this time of year,” Mary said. “The swallows arrive, but the hummingbirds leave.”

Substitute:

“It’s happening again. I always notice it this time of year.” Except for last year, when Papa died, and Mary was in shock. “The swallows arrive, but the hummingbirds leave.”

A wee bit longer, but we get some backstory, preferably something new to the reader.

It has to be sneaked in, like those raisins, almost unseen.

Not too many musings, etc.

Whenever musings take over a paragraph – time to cut. When the musings are too long – cut. When no person in his right mind would stop a swordfight to think that much – cut.

Unless you get TOO stark and spare.

In general, I write long – there’s always things that can be cut without sacrificing clarity. I’d like to end up with writing no reader can skip without missing something crucial to the story.

I’m not there yet.

What parts do YOU skip?

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5 thoughts on “Writing too MUCH nuance

  1. Bill Peschel

    Stream of consciousness is good to indulge in on the first draft. Where writers can fall down is in not expending the energy on a subsequent pass to weed them out.

    This is great technical advice!

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Self-indulgence is lovely – you are precisely correct: do it – but then be aware enough of the final desired effect to pare it back.

      Because what writers REALLY want is for their readers to READ and LOVE every word we create, ALL the time.

      But it doesn’t happen. The amount of stuff I cut out… I do like it better when it’s trimmed, so there’s that.

      Thanks for stopping by, Bill.

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  2. juliabarrett

    I’m kind of guilty of liking the stream of consciousness stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I trust the readers, but I enjoy a nice flow of words sometimes.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      The divide between ‘nuance’ and ‘way too much nuance’ isn’t a narrow one; it’s a broad pathway paved with good intentions.

      The problem for writers is that, in writing in general – and in writing that is considered good (by some group) – you can do anything you want.

      The caveat is you don’t want to make YOUR particular readers skim and skip. So the amount you can get away with varies. Most modern people consider Moby Dick to have too much detail; in its time, and for its readers, there were probably many who loved the exquisitely detailed paragraphs and sentences. James Patterson is a huge seller – his sparse style leaves me cold.

      Like a tendency to use ‘very’ too much, or to start sentences with ‘As,’ or any of the many things editors rail against, it is a matter of degree.

      Indulge away – just be aware of the consequences. Many writers don’t seem to be – but maybe that means I’m not their intended reader. Besides, I want to fix my flaws, not the world’s.

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