We’ve all seen reviews that extol an author’s writing as “crisp” or “clean”; perhaps the reviewer says “she nails it” or that his prose simply “kills.”
What, exactly, does that mean, apart from the fact that the reviewer liked what he read? Do crisp words crackle in your mouth when you read them aloud? Is clean writing free from dirty words? Just what gets put to death when a writer “kills” it?
To answer the last of these questions first: Ambiguity is what dies in killer prose. Because if it doesn’t, it will strangle the life out of the story. Nothing will cause an editor to toss your manuscript faster than ambiguous, wishy-washy writing.
It was late on a rather chilly night as the young man—with a somewhat dejected look—emerged from the greenish Honda parked in the convenience-store lot in a shady part of town. He had the gun in his pocket.
This prose kills, all right—it kills the reader’s interest, not to mention the editor’s. Can you spot the deadly ambiguities? Here’s a laundry list of kinda-sorta problems:
* How late is it? After the evening news? After the bars closed? After the author’s bedtime?
* Is it cold or isn’t it? (rather chilly)
* How young is a “young man?” Is he a teenager, a twenty-something, prepubescent? Or is he simply younger than the author?
* Is he or isn’t he dejected? Or is that just how he (somewhat) looks?
* Is the Honda green or isn’t it? What color should the reader be picturing in her mind’s eye?
* Of all the models Honda makes, which one is it? A sporty CR-Z? A youthful Fit? An Odyssey family wagon? In America, what a person drives is a virtual extension of his personality.
* How old is the car? What condition is it in? Such details will tell us about the character’s financial status.
* “Convenience” store is conveniently vague: I can picture any of a number of 7-11′s, Plaid Pantry’s, or Stop’n'Go’s I’ve been to, but this line doesn’t place me at any one of them.
* Does this part of town have a lot of trees? Or do numerous streetlights cast extra shadows? What makes it shady? The people? The crime rate? The poverty? The lack of Starbucks?
* And finally: shady part of what town?
Readers are a well-traveled lot; many can see Chicago’s railyards or Boston’s Southie, or L.A.’s South Central, if you just give them the chance. If they haven’t been there in person, they’ve probably seen enough TV and movie representations of such places to relieve you of having to describe every nuance. The less you have to tell the reader, the “crisper” and “cleaner” your prose will be.
But crisp, clean prose isn’t just a lack of words; it’s the use of definitive words. Evocative words that “nail” an image to the reader’s mind.
Let’s try the story again:
The humid subfreezing air permeated his clothing the minute the teen—with a quiet look of desperation—stepped out of his mother’s brand-new, fire-engine-red Civic Si Coupe outside the Circle K in North Portland’s industrial district. It was just after midnight. The pistol he’d stolen from his father’s gun safe was cold against his skin, even through the pocket fabric of his baggy jeans.
Now, in 64 words, you’ve painted a picture so complete as to make it possible for the reader to be there in person. It’s cinematic in its detail: it gives you time, place, temperature, mood, wardrobe, and backstory. The original told you merely of a guy and a car in a nondescript parking lot somewhere with a gun.
But you won’t be able to share such detail with your readers until you’ve been to the scene yourself and observed it firsthand. An idea for story or plot thread is insufficient; you need to spend time in the milieu you create. I don’t mean you physically have to travel to Miami or Munich or wherever else your story is set (though it helps greatly); what you have to do is take your mind there for extended periods.
Put the keyboard aside. Go take a long walk, a hot shower, or a luxurious bubble bath. Be there for a while. Look around. What do you see? What do you hear and smell? What details do you notice? Even if you don’t incorporate all of them into your story, your familiarity with them will imbue your work with authenticity and a palpable excitement. Get so intimate with the scene that you write it from memory rather than imagination.
Then, once you’re done with your first draft, go back and replace or excise all ambiguous words, such as:
And so on. Engage in hyperbole if you have to. It doesn’t matter if this is based on a true story. Unless you’re giving a court deposition, the reader doesn’t want simple facts; she wants excitement. Never be afraid to embellish the ordinary. The reader expects it of you. That’s why he’s set aside reality and picked up your book. Life is full of ambiguities; give him a plot and characters who cut through the crap and get straight to the point.
Your readers and editors will thank you.