f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: The First Observation About Dense Writing

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, May 12, 2006

The First Observation About Dense Writing

(A caveat: I have no idea what I'm doing here. I often write these posts blindly but I feel I'm doing it doubly-so this time. Don't spare me if I say something off base here.)

I think the first rule of dense writing should be that our language must be precise. We need to understand the words we select (choose, pick, proffer) entirely (fully, wholly, in a biblical sense.)

Not only do we need to understand what they mean on a denotative level (literally) but what the shadings of the word imply as well. (I'm going to stop with the little paranthetical games for the moment. You should get the point.)

Precision on a word-by-word basis is not about mining your thesaurus--although it likely will mean expanding your vocabulary. This isn't random substitution of words merely for effect. It's being conscious (likely during rewrite!!) of how word selection shades and changes voice, tone, style, etc.

From Gilead:
This morning the world by moonlight seemed to be an immemorial acquaintance I had always meant to befriend. If there was ever a chance, it has passed. Strange to say, I feel a little that way about myself.

John Ames is an intelligent man but his language is spare. Simple, almost. "Immemorial" here then becomes an important adjective. It heightens the poignancy of this statement...a dying man realizing just a bit the presumptions of immortality we all delude ourselves with.

After precise words, then the next level of precision should be at the descriptive level. We want our metaphors, our physical descriptions, our settings to (usually) render themselves transparently to our readers. There is a time, one can imagine, for vagueness or passivity. But not too often.

From Lawrence Dorr's "An Act of Admiration:"

I was fifteen the summer of '36. To me Hitler was no more than the stub of a pencil held to my upper lip to make my sister laugh.

That's a good first two lines of a story, isn't it? You get the naive innocence of a child juxtaposed with the unspoken horror that the next seven years would render. And you get a concrete image to boot. I think that's precise.

I realize tearing these things from their context isn't all that helpful or instructive. I don't have too many other ideas for how to go about it. We'll keep plugging away.

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Continue to the Second Observation About Dense Writing.