Writing: the power of reduction

Doing more in less words

Can you say the same thing in less words? Can you distill the meaning of what you try to convey using five sentences to just one?  Reduce 300 words to 100, 100 to 60?

The increasing efficiency of Raymond Chandler

When I was editing one of my so-called “remixes”: Scars in the fabric of timea few months ago, I read “Farewell my lovely” (1940) by Raymond Chandler. 

What struck me most in Chandler’s second ‘Philip Marlowe’ book (next to the haphazard way the “plot” was constructed) was the increasingly consistent and economic way he used to describe a scene, a person or a moment. For instance (chapter 5):

1644 West 54th place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year’s poinsettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half washed jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.

73 words in 5 sentences. We find unpruned shoots, half-washed clothing on a rusty wire, cracked stucco and a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn. It is all Chandler thinks he needs to make the picture clear to you and when you unpack the sentences, you can get quite a complete and detailed image.

When and if more ‘glances’ are required to give a full picture, like in the opening of chapter 8 of “Farewell my Lovely”, we will be introduced to them in three separate chunks: one describing the harbor of Bay City, one describing the little group of houses of Montemar Vista and one to describe the road leading to his destination.

There is a difference and a change in how Chandler does this later on. For instance, compare this description from chapter 8 to the one from chapter 18 underneath.

I got down to Montemar Vista as the light began to fade, but there was still a fine sparkle on the water and the surf was breaking out in long smooth curves. A group of pelican was flying bomber formation just under the creaming lip of the waves. […] Above the beach the highway ran under a wide concrete arch which was in fact a pedestrian bridge.

Chapter 18:

It was close to the ocean and you could feel the ocean in the air, but you couldn’t see the water from the font of the place. Asher drive had a long smooth curve there and the houses on the inland side were just nice houses.

And that is it. The second part is shorter and almost brutally to the point. No time is wasted on frivolous elements like ‘pelicans flying bomber formation’ or the froth on the lips of the waves. Whether Asher road is under, above or next to the ocean is no longer considered relevant in the writing. Still this start of chapter 18 manages to create a clear impression of location and surroundings.

Why we describe

Descriptions of the scenery, of people, of actions, of a situation, function as “anchors” into the background-reality of your story-world. Without those anchors your story and your characters just float around in an undefined space without any significant details that could be anywhere, any time.

These very same anchors are relevant to your readers as well. The three most important things for me, when editing, are usually: Where is the story taking place? When? How does this relate to where and when my reader is?

The perils of confusion and poor writing

The moment your writing becomes confusing, unfocused or poor, your reader “steps out” or “drops out” for a moment. (This is one reason why editing is so crucial in your story-writing process.)

To get into your story again, your reader will have to “drop back in again” and the question is where and when he or she will stop doing that.

Reduction and engagement

The more you can reduce those moments of “stepping/dropping out”, the deeper your reader will be dragged into your world, to the point where your story becomes so “well written” that it is impossible to put it down.

Less can be more: focus and relevance as a formula

The formula Raymond Chandler seems to develop throughout “Farewell my lovely” seems to focus mainly on reduction. Where Chandler seems to have no clue where he is going in chapter 1, where the beginning of chapter 8 is still a bit messy, chapter 9 starts to show precision. Actions and descriptions serve the story. Observations are crisp and to the point. The narrative pattern that is emerging from there continues to improve.

The formula Chandler develops as the book continues is roughly as follows:

  1. Brief and clear description to set time and location. Maximum of 3 paragraphs at the time: each no more than 60 words.
  2. Action and dialog!
  3. Short pause for observation, usually compressed in one sentence before we take on again.
  4. More action and dialog, mixed with:
  5. More short observations which are relevant to support the longer arc.
  6. A longer observation that can be either an inner dialog or a description providing some clue related to the longer arc of the book itself: no longer than one paragraph and no longer than 60 to 70 words.
  7. More action and dialog to wrap up the chapter.
  8. Last sentence: creation of expectation to create the bridge to the next chapter

The actions consist mostly of walking, grabbing something, moving things, moving parts of the body. The dialog revolves mostly around purpose, denial, derailment, spoken interactions to reveal or hide certain motives and gaining some sort of result so the action can continue. The observations focus mainly on traits that help the reader form an image of the characters in the book, helping to anchor and explain previous and future actions.

One thing characteristic to “Farewell my Lovely”, is that all characters have several shades of grey. None are explicitly good or bad. Most are observed by the main character, Philip Marlowe, without too much personal judgement. Marlowe himself is mostly drinking, talking, trying to get a clue and bumbling his way through the events of the story, being more of a gentle anti-hero than the type of hard-boiled detectives that we find in Marlowe-esque books of later periods.

Concluding

The more you can reduce your words to the core elements that shape your story, the more it will probably gain in power.

This does not mean you can only tell the main lines and you are not allowed to use elaborate constructions (or: purple prose) when you build your sentences. This does not mean you are not allowed to take some time to describe things and scenes that hardly add up to your plot. This does not mean that you will only be removing things. It means that whatever you do (including the detours, the moments that give your story atmosphere and the moments of nothingness in your story) is reduced to its crisp and clear essence, taking only as much space as it needs.

And yes: in some cases this means you will have to add things.

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