Sometimes you’ll hear people discussing a visual medium such as television, and the unintended effect of some visual clue or key. “That wasn’t what I meant at all,” the director might say. Or an actor. Or the cameraman. But in a static art such as painting or writing, you need to remember there are no accidents.
You might not have considered (as I had not) that each brush stroke in a painting is intentional. That each detail has to be carefully added by the artist. There is nothing accidental about a painting. Nothing accidental about the shading, the texture, the images that appear on a canvas. It is all intentional and meant to imply some specific thought of the artist. Every single moment in a painting is exactly as the artist intended. In a completely constructed artwork, every detail is planned and executed by the creator.
Writing should be like this. There are no random, spare, accidental words. As a writer, we’re crafting a story. But we’re building it out of sentences, each of which is constructed of words. And all of those words should be in the service of the whole. You should craft each sentence with the intention of making it work with every other word. Creating purpose. On purpose.
Garbage language is pervasive. It’s most often present in verbal speech. “Um… uh… like… y’know… know what I mean?”Dialogue is NOT writing. It’s written speech. There’s a mighty big difference.
“You know what I mean?” is a phrase that never fails to set my teeth on edge. If I knew what you meant, you’d know, and if your statement had purpose, you wouldn’t have to ask. You’d KNOW that I know what you meant. “You get the gist.” You see what I’m getting at.” These phrases are used to draw the listener into the thought process of the speaker. You’re making your listener do the work YOU should be doing.
As a writer, you arrange each word carefully. No matter the content, you construct each sentence specifically for an impact, for a goal. To communicate isn’t enough. As a writer you need to explain in no uncertain terms what you’re trying to say. The actual, physical act of causing words to appear is a deliberate effort on your part to convey an idea.
IDEAS can be open to interpretation. Ideas can be discussed. The language you use to convey those ideas should be concise. Specific. To the bone.
Dialogue may be sloppy, and imprecise, and unlovely. That is how we speak. We shorthand. We skip logical steps in the communication. That’s human. That’s reality.
Your narration must be a precision instrument. Use it for maximum effect. Use it to actively explain to your reader what you’re saying, and how your scene is playing out, and why the characters are doing what they do. Crisp, clean narration should be invisible, in my mind. Everyone remembers dialogue, no one remembers narration. This is the purpose of narration: to be unobtrusive and at the same time exact.