Writers focus on words. So do editors. That's a given. After all, words are our stock in trade. However, I recently received a video from Diva's latest trainer, a video promised and which is supposed to help with selling this horse.
Granted, the video--with still photos at beginning and end--show a lovely animal. She's balanced. Her conformation is sturdy, yet elegant and powerful. Her movement is correct and fluid. This is a gorgeous animal. However, the video does not show Diva working under saddle or in hand. What the video does not show--the absence of such "film"--gives evidence of what the trainer did not do.
Rather than gripe (more) about the trainer's failure to do her job or fulfill her promises, let's focus this lesson on writing. What the writer does not write often tells as much as what the writer does write. In other words (delicious irony), the missing words can say as much as the ones on the page.
Take dialogue tags, for instance. Amateur writers often insert a dialogue tag with every bit of speech. The reader's mind quickly tires of them and glosses over them. Sometimes it seems like amateur writers insert so many of them to pad their word counts. Dialogue tags are not always needed. The story may even be more powerful for their absence. For instance, take this snippet from "Girls Can't Do That."
"Clever, aren’t you?”
She shrugged. Sometimes prudence mandated silence.
“Switch hands,” he ordered.
“Because how are you going to fight if your sword arm is injured?”
She nodded her understanding and switched the practice sword from her right hand to her left.
She fumbled, appalled at her clumsiness.
Marshall nodded without surprise. “You’ll have to learn all over again.”
Only once in these lines is a dialogue tag used; however, the dialogue itself makes clear who is speaking. The "missing" words are just as powerful as the ones used.
In another example, "missing" words allow the reader to use his or her imagination. See this snippet from "By Water Reborn." In this scene, the huntsman returns, blood-spattered, from a hunt for justice. The woman he loves meets him at the door.
“The hunt didn’t go well?” she asked, her voice soft, hesitant.
His upper lip curled in a sneer, though his contempt was not aimed at her. “I found her. I found him.”
There's no need to describe the hunt and its gory outcome. The reader can well imagine what happened to the huntsman's prey.
Expository description attempts to do what spare, effective writing allows the reader's imagination to do. It's important to sweat those details, but it's equally important to know which details to omit. The omission is not a lie, it's another kind of revelation, another kind of truth, another kind of detail. The reader knows because the writer says nothing.
Let's make this even simpler. Say you purchase a new pair of red pants and ask your partner, "Do these pants make my butt look big?" If your partner is stupid enough to answer that loaded question, then perhaps he or she is smart enough to respond such as, "Red's a good color for you" or "You look good in red." What your partner does not say is that, yes, those pants make your butt look big. What's not said answers the question.
When writing--just as in fashion--oftentimes less is more. Practice the art of not saying something. Your writing will be all the stronger for it.
And, if you're looking for a project horse and enjoy a challenge, Diva's for sale.