Despite the fancy phrasing and tickled sentences, all massaged and beefed up till they’re practically poetry, most of the language in some of the greatest books is ordinary and plain. And it should be. Why?
Complex sentences can be beautiful, but hard to digest and it’s exhausting if the entire novel is written that way. For a select few authors born with a gilded tongue, they can create a feast for the eyes of the reader. But most of the time readers want clarity. It’s easy to overwork a sentence until it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. But is it really serving its purpose? The story is what should be engaging — the characters and how they interact and react with each other and the problems they face. And the funny thing is, you’ll remember a book as having been much more elaborate and painted than it actually was.
Tell your stories aloud to a friend, to yourself, to your dog. If it starts sounding verbose and awkward to spit out … if you can hear yourself getting bored, eyes glassing over at the detailed descriptions … STOP. Re-write it like you were standing around a campfire, keeping everyone engaged. Your friend’s grandfather should be as interested as your ten-year-old nephew.
Walt Disney had a rule when he would pitch ideas around the studio. The moment someone looked away when he was telling them a story he knew he had lost them. He would often start over, changing the story on the fly for the next person he told, or finding a better way to say the same thing. Pitch your ideas to someone. Part of it, of course, has to do with how engaging your material is — but a lot of it is just the language. The simple way that you speak/write. It’s important to discover what keeps people engaged. Suck up your pride and experiment with that.
The Power of 2+2 in Description
Stories build on each other. What’s true for film should remain true for a novel. There are really never too many “complex” moments in stories. Any complexity comes from many little–but meaningful–instances peppered throughout the story.
Whenever I start a new project, or if I’m stuck on some phrasing I’m not totally pleased with, I’ll turn to my dozen or so favorite novels for some re-inspiration. I was working on my latest book Wonderful World of Zombies and really felt that this one description was lacking that vivid detail I remembered from books like Crichton’s Jurassic Park. There’s a part that they cut from the movie (though, Spielberg added it in to the second film) where the kids are hiding behind a waterfall from the T-Rex. I remember the scene vividly in my mind.
“Timmy and Lex were shivering with fear behind the roar of the waterfall when suddenly, the Rex let out a bellowing roar as his giant head came crashing through the thundering veil of falling water with tremendous force in hot pursuit of the children.”
I’m sure some of you might remember this too, right? Wrong. Here’s how the text actually went:
“And then, with a roar, the tyrannosaur’s head burst through the waterfall toward them.”
That … that was it?! I thumbed through the rest of the book at random, just to see if my mind was playing tricks on me. Surely this was an isolated event.
Nope. All over the book, I found nothing but short, simple and concise phrasing with one or two very select descriptors attached to very plain language. At first I was so disappointed.
“The room was filled with yellow stones.” … ” It scurried into the underbrush, dragging a fat tail. ” … “The raptor snarled in frustration, twenty feet above him on the catwalk” … “Tim felt rain”
You’ve gotta be kidding me. It was so plain. So ordinary. And it wasn’t just Crichton. I found instances in Hemingway, Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Dan Brown and more.
Then, I realized why. When an author allows the reader to digest the story so quickly without getting caught up on how beautiful the words are, the result is 2+2=4. Just as John Hammond used frog DNA, the reader fills in the gaps in their mind and takes away the lasting memory of how the scene felt. In the end that’s all that matters. I remember one instance in particular in Brown’s The Lost Symbol, where the room was described as having “an impressive array of technology.” That’s really all you need. The right, simple adjective and the subject. People tell their friends about a book because “Oh man, it’s so scary. You have to read it!”
The phrase “Tim felt rain,” has become a staple among my fellow authors and writing partners. It’s a reminder to both go easy on the verbiage, but also to remember to let the story happen to your characters. But, we’ll save that topic for another discussion.
I was also shocked at how many sentences started off with “and”, “but”, “so”, and any number of other conjunctions we were taught to be grammatically incorrect at the start of a sentence. I remember so much red on my homework. It was bad writing. It wasn’t proper English. It was wrong! Yet in so many highly regarded novels … there it was. How did they get away with that? Surely they flunked out of Creative Writing.
But no, when you talk to someone in person you don’t speak that way at all. And often times you’ll continue a thought in the next sentence, tacking it on to what would be considered a grammatically finished statement. So don’t be afraid of writing it the same way on the page …. See? Screw proper English!
It can be pretentious to speak so god damned properly all the time. Most of the time, you’re not going to impress your audience with overly-descriptive language and incredibly witty phrasing. There’s certainly a time and place to do that, and one should strive to say things in a fresh and unique fashion — but you’re not Faulkner. In response to such criticism, Hemingway once noted:
“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” —Ernest Hemingway, Quoted in: A.E. Hotchner, Papa Hemingway
It’s not to say the sentences like, “The raptors were snarling at Arnold when the animal on the left simply exploded, the upper part of the torso flying into the air, blood spattering like a burst tomato on the walls of the building,” shouldn’t be included. Because they should. And they are great. But they are few. Authors should remember to include language people understand and are used to hearing spoken out loud. Among friends. At a lecture. As if you’re sitting around a campfire with friends, family and strangers who all want to hear the tale you have to tell.
Some of the most memorable lines in history are some of the simplest and direct, deriving great meaning from their implication, and no more than three letters long.
“To be or not to be…”