Caveat: I am using one sentence of a story I recently edited (it only had three errors though). I do not give the name of the author nor the title of the story. I am mentioning only what I perceived as one glitch in an otherwise talented (and I think young) author. And I am only using it to spin off the resulting ideas that it led me to. Ideas that are largely still half-formed.
I was editing a short story, and though written competently there was something that was bugging me about it. The author felt the need to be exact spatially. Valleys were a kilometer wide, X was three meters to the left, a cliff face was sixty meters, someone was three meters away from someone else, etc. There were 16 instances of this sort of exact measurement.
At first I took it as an author’s quirk and not one I liked very much (because it felt like one of my own). Then it hit me why but it wasn’t just a subjective displeasure of mine. It stood out in the following scene. There is a man standing at the bank of a lake upon a large flat rock, there is a woman in the water below and in front of him, they are talking. And then the following sentence.
She laughed and pushed away from the rock, treading water about two metres from the edge.
That isn’t necessary and is six words in excess. Here is what I wrote as feedback:
…it conveys mistrust of the reader’s imagination. For instance, the following sentence (the 16th instance of giving specific measurements): “She laughed and pushed away from the rock, treading water about two metres from the edge.” could have been rendered, “She laughed and pushed away from the rock, treading water.” The reader will not think she pushed off from the rock with such force that she propelled herself clear across the lake and they are now unable to see or hear each other; the reader will do the necessary work automatically with his own imagination and so the measurement is superfluous. And it shaves 6 words off the sentence!
I should have offered that it may not merely be a case of lack of confidence in the reader’s imagination (although that is the feeling the reader would get) it may be lack of author confidence (something I have unending sympathy with).
But it should be clear that the measurement of two meters is completely unnecessary. The shorter version produces the exact result with less taxation on the reader’s mind freeing it to create the scene in his own imagination. The reader is not forced to either 1) deal with the measurement (am I seeing her too far out? too close to the rock still? does it matter? how long is two meters?) 2) throwing out as irrelevant material provided by the writer.
You don’t want your reader throwing out material. You certainly don’t want the reader getting into the habit of skipping over your words.
Everything suggests importance by the fact of being included.
I thought about this last night as I was passing out the wrong drinks to the wrong customers and calling people by names they were not given at birth. There is a general principle at work here.
No, not a rule. But a truth. And I confine it here to literature, the written fiction form only (mainly because I haven’t thought it out in any other application). There is no objective or Platonic novel. There is no Gulliver’s Travels or Christmas Carol as it really is.
There are physical copies of these books and they have certain words in a certain order and no other. But they exist in no mind the same.
You could say that the author’s vision (that ever changing thing that gets a snapshot taken of itself) is the objective story and the readers participate as closely as they can to that Form. But that is not what goes on.
Now, before the boat sways wildly to the other side as we humans are wont to do, it needn’t really be said that it does not mean that fiction is pure subjectivity. That the author writes whatever onto paper and it means whatever the reader dreams it up to mean. So if the writer said Jackie went to the store to buy ammo for her gun, the reader is not free to read that as Jackie turned into a hummingbird and went in search of nectar. No, Jackie went to the store to buy ammo – that part is objective – and the reader is bound to it. Unless, of course, somehow, the author meant one thing to mean another, but my example was of normal narrative.
The writer breaks down the whole that stands in his imagination, and we, the reader, put it back together again and in the process have an experience that is both similar and in many ways very different from the author’s experience.
This is the way it is supposed to work so the reader has to be given room to let his own imagination work. That is the pleasure of reading. Unless an item of detail is absolutely essential for the reader to understand or imagine a certain action, idea, item, etc, I would say bold strokes is the best.
Also, let’s consider my other important point.
And it shaves 6 words off the sentence!
I do not need to labor this point at all because it has been immortalized by William Strunk Jr. in The Elements of Style.
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
I should note in closing that I am much better at seeing this stuff than I am in avoiding it in my own writing. My own writing usually makes me want to hide under a rock and never be seen again! Also the Strunk quote is an ideal I only wish to approximate.