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The Gearbox: Overstatement

by on Apr.22, 2009, under The Gearbox

Hey, everybody! Welcome back to The Gearbox- the weekly writing column where I tell you how to write what I want to read. I realize that a lot of what I talk about is already covered in books like Between the Lines and Stephen King’s On Writing, but I don’t care! I’m covering it anyway!

This week: Overstatement!

Overstatement is probably the biggest killer amongst young and aspiring writers. At least, when I edit other people’s stories, overstatement is the thing that I gripe about the most. Writers should realize that you only have a few words to capture a reader’s attention, and overstating everything is like shoving a stick in the spokes of the reader. As readers, we want to get into a nice flow, where the information trickles off the page, straight into our brains. We don’t want some overblown double-explanation of every idea in the story. Words must be chosen like the cuts on a bonsai tree- too few and you have chaos; too many, and you have stripped your ideas bare.

There are many kinds of overstatement:

1) Adverbial/Adjective Overstatement

Adverbs and adjectives are nothing short of fallbacks. They’re modifiers for when a noun, verb or preposition doesn’t exist to cover the thing you’re writing about- and they’re important. As writers, they’re one of the greatest weapons we have in our arsenals, but frankly, they can be overkill. They’re powerful, and too many writers employ their use when a well-chosen word would have served better. Consider the following sentence:

“The angry man walked quickly from the room.”

Every single time you pull out an adverb or adjective, you should ask yourself, “Is there a word that I can use that connotes the meaning that I am about to apply with this adjective or adverb?” This is where thesauruses come in handy. I believe that there are no synonyms in the English language- only subtle and hidden shades of meaning. Pull out a thesaurus and find the right word. A much better sentence would have read:

“The man stormed from the room.”

There. It reads a little better now, right? I would wager that all of the meaning of the first sentence was captured in the second sentence, and it added a nice visual. Adverbs can be useful, but most of the time they’re just crap. Adjectives are a little better, but you have to start from the right noun before you begin modifying it.

2) Character Description Overstatement

Okay, this is a pet peeve of mine. It’s a special kind of overstatement, of which I am particularly guilty. Character description overstatement (or “CDO” to save me some typing) happens when you describe a character in specific terms of his or her appearance, even if those attributes are not plot relevant. CDO is typically worked in at the most awkward times, and it serves to destroy the pace of a book during the first few critical pages when the book is supposed to hook the reader. Here’s an example:

“Andy bent down to wash his face, and when he looked up, he found himself looking into his own hazel eyes in the bathroom mirror. He casually examined his wavy, neck-length, straw-blond hair and strong, Roman nose. Looking down, he could see the muscles on his torso. He didn’t think he was much to look at, but the ladies disagreed.”

That is terrible! This should only happen in a novelization of a Quantum Leap episode! So much of that doesn’t really need to be said, and if someone doesn’t like the way that character looks based upon your description, you might have lost a reader. Consider, instead, this substitute:

“Andy was graceful, with the form of a gymnast, and his smile made him irresistible to women.”

By speaking in abstractions, you allow the reader to unconsciously create the character that they would prefer to see in their version of the story. That heightens the reader’s involvement quite a bit.

It’s not too bad, though, if you use the character description as a chance to either lampoon or illuminate your character’s personality, for example: “His clothes were perfectly ironed,” or “her teeth, blackening from years of addiction to sweets.”

3) Dialogue Attribution Overstatement

The last type of overstatement that I want to talk about is dialog attribution overstatement. DAO happens when you place some sort of indicator in the dialog attribution about how a line is read, even though there is really only one way to read the line. For example- suppose that you have a tense scene in a psychological thriller wherein the killer has just been discovered and becomes hostile. Our heroine tosses dirt in his eyes and bolts into the woods. The next line of dialogue is:

“‘I’ll kill you for that, you little witch!’ he shouted, his voice full of rage.”

Don’t waste page by adding an adverb, or “his voice full of rage.” We know his voice is full of rage. He’s trying to kill someone, and they may have seriously injured him. He’s not going to be jovial.

Now Stephen King and I diverge on this next point. He says that you should only use “he said/she said” dialogue attribution, but I think it’s okay to get spicier with your verbs. What is most important is that you disambiguate without becoming tedious.

Surely, though, I’ve belabored the problems of overstatement enough. What do you all think?

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7 Comments for this entry

  • volrath

    Your essay touched my literary peeves as well.

    Adjectives/adverbs. Yes, one should use modifiers sparingly. Adverbs, especially, draw attention to themselves, as in the previous sentence. The verb “use” here is weak; it is the adverb “sparingly” that shouts. BUT in this case, “sparingly” is the point of the sentence.
    Although true, that in the majority of cases using an adverb is the poorer choice to using a better verb, there is still a place for this much maligned part of speach.

    Character description:
    This one can be tricky. On the one hand, the reader usually needs to know early on the basic characteristics of the character: gender, age, location, and so on. We can learn his eye color later on, if ever. Why not turn up the craftmanship and sneak in character discription with action?

    Charlie raised his trusty .45 army colt. His hand wasn’t as steady as it used to be, but if that smart ass kid standing in the doorway so much as blinked, he blow his tatooed, lip-ringed face into dog food.

    So, we know Charlie’s gender, a good idea of his age, a bit about his physical condition, and a whole lot about his attitude in two sentenses. Plus, the fact that some young dude is in deep do-do.

    And BTW, Alex, you’re spot-on about the “idle musing in the mirror” bit. Unless your protag is a psychopathic narcissist or it’s otherwise plot specfic, stay away from that cliche.

    Biff stared at his reflection. Damn, the night of the big dance, and there’s zit the size of Cleveland.

    Dialogue Attribs.

    Alex, you found my hot button. Yes, these are sooo overdone. But I agree with King. Except in rare cases, “he said, she said (asked)” is fine. Attempts at strengthing the attrib with verbs like “shouted”, “cried”, “spat”, “hissed” are usually a poor substitute for the attention to craftmanship.

    And many times no attrib is needed at all. Throw in some pertinent action at the start, middle, or end of the character’s line.

    “You’re in a heap of trouble, boy.” The sheriff slapped his handcuffs against the side of his leg. “Turn around and put your hands on the hood of the car.”

    We could have also used “the sheriff said, slapping his handcuffs . . .” So, when should we use one construction verses the other? I dunno. That’s why writing is called an art.


  • Alex White

    That’s great that I got you so stirred! It’s always funny to me how I fall halfway between the conservatives of writing (*aHem!*…mingway, *cough cough*), and advocating that ridiculous pulp style I seem to have adapted. It’s so hard to imagine what a real writer would think of me, but I feel that I must stick to my guns. I like the way my writing sounds, even if King says I should feel otherwise!

  • volrath

    Well . . . OK, as long as you’re earnest in your convictions . . . (insert rimshot here).

    Seriously, I don’t advocate not ever using stronger words than “said” for the attrib verb or even using the occasional wryly.(So, how’s the ice cream? he asked, wryly.) Certainly in the right place at the right time they can do well. I just don’t feel that good opportunities come along that often.

    A pinch of oregano may make the soup interesting, a dash of cayenne may make it exiting, but 3 tablespoons of ground habaneros spoils the lunch.

    Warning! Profundity Alert:
    So, as it is with spices and adverbs, so it is with wrylies and “improved” attrib verbs: If you must use them, be sure to select the words carefully and plant them far apart.

    Gotta go, I’m starting to drown in corny metaphors.


  • Johnnie A

    About Point 1)
    Point 1 in particular is something I’m rather good at; good in the sense I do it all the time when I actually know I shouldn’t. I can easily write a sentence like “The angry man walked quickly from the room” and notice instantly it’s bad. Yet I struggle to find the better way of phrasing it when I try to fix it, almost as if some part of my brain doesn’t want to bother with fixing it. When I go back to it a day later I usually find a better way of phrasing it, assuming I do go back. When I reread earlier parts I noticed this a lot, but like many writers I promise myself I’ll fix it all when it’s time to revise the project.

    About Point 2)
    I think a lot of writers just want to get the character descriptions out of the way as quickly as possible so that they could get to the rest of the story (though I may possibly be speaking for myself *whistles*). I see that most modern authors pepper their character descriptions through the work after a rough description at the beginning, something that I think can have its uses particularly in a first-person narration.

  • JohnFrost

    On Point 3, I’m of the Michael Stackpole school of thought. He says you should go through your work and take out any and all dialogue attributions that are not absolutely necessary. That sheriff sentence volrath used is a perfect example of how to work in an attribution without ever having to actually attribute anything, and, IMHO, it just flows so much nicer.

  • Alex White

    Oh, I absolutely agree about getting rid of unnecessary dialog attributions. The difficulty comes for me from the fact that The Gearheart is an ensemble piece, with multiple guys and gals on the stage at any given point. “He said/ She said” just won’t cut it in every scenario.

    I’ve managed to find all kinds of good workarounds for clarifying attribution without actually adding an attrib itself.

  • JohnFrost

    Well, an audio format is an whole different beast… I thought we were just talking about writing in general.

    But with The Gearheart, anyway, I think you and Renee have done a good enough job creating the voices that you need even less of the sparse attribs you do use.

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