Novels never need over-furnished rooms.
January 6, 2016
THE PROSE once flowed purple.
Now it’s clean and spare.
Writers were once paid by the word.
Writers used a lot of words.
Authors in those days felt compelled to pack their novels with full-blown descriptions.
They didn’t leave out any of the details, no matter how unimportant they might be.
Bring readers into the room.
That was the idea.
Tell them what’s in every corner.
Let them touch it all with their eyes.
What color is the rug?
Is it old or new?
How tight is the weave?
Make sure readers can even smell the fragrance of the furniture polish.
What pictures are on the wall?
Are the paintings original?
Are they prints?
Is that grandma’s portrait hanging in the corner?
Why is she alone?
Wasn’t she married?
Or is it a great aunt nobody remembers anymore.
That’s the way it once was.
For writers, it’s not that way anymore.
At least it shouldn’t be.
It’s all right to usher readers into a room.
Mention the bed only if someone sits down upon it.
Mention the desk only if someone opens a drawer in search of a missing object.
Mention the rug only if it is stained with dried blood.
Mention the photo on the wall only if the glass was shattered by a gunshot.
And the great aunt?
Mention her portrait only if there are secrets hidden behind her aging black and white eyes.
Personally, I prefer the philosophy of Jim Thompson, one of the classical old writers of literary fiction posing as pulp fiction.
It was said of the stories in his novels: He was big on getting a lot of stuff into a paragraph. He was Hemingwayesque in the sense of everything being cold, hard, and clean – tight writing.
And he emphasized art through dialogue. But he wanted us to pack as much into our paragraphs as possible without going into unnecessary description.
“You don’t have to describe the furniture,” he’d say. Jim was against ‘over-furnished rooms’ – a phrase he picked up from Willa Cather.
Descriptions get in the way.
Descriptions slow you down.
Keep your story moving.
Descriptions are only roadblocks for the mind.
Here’s what my wife does.
When she comes to those long, elaborate, drawn-out paragraphs weighted down with wandering and rambling descriptions, she reads the first sentence and the last sentence and say she doesn’t miss a thing.
The story keeps rolling, and she rolls right along with it.
In reality, Jim Thompson was only using an old Hemingway trick.
Hemingway said: If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.
I tried to follow their advice when I wrote Deadline News.
My protagonist walked into a boarding house room where a woman had been murdered.
And this is the way I wrote the scene:
Doc Featherstone was seated in a hand-hewn, oak rocker beside her when I walked into the room. He was scribbling notes in his black, leather-covered journal and didn’t bother to look up. He was wearing the same rumpled black suit he had been wearing the afternoon before when he stopped by Smooley’s Café for a mess of pork rinds and a beer. Doc was old enough to retire, but he couldn’t retire, he said. There wasn’t another doctor within twenty miles of Henderson, and folks still had a nasty habit of getting sick, getting hurt, having babies, walking into stray bullets, driving their two-bit trucks into four-bit trees, feuding, fighting, gambling, drinking hard whiskey, chasing the wrong woman, occasionally catching a woman who belonged to the wrong man, and generally finding all sorts of ways to pass from the toil and troubles of this earth. Doc couldn’t save them all, cure them all, or lock death on the far side of the door, but he was around when anyone needed him.
I hardly mentioned the room.
It was unimportant.
The narrative was all about Doc.
He was vital to the story.
Characters always are.
The room is just taking up space.
As writers, we deal with words.
They are our tools.
They are our weapons.
Good stories usually don’t depend on the words we nail to a page.
Good stories depend on the words we toss in the trash.