Economy of Words


One of Kurt Vonnegut's rules of writing was that "Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action."

We, of course are writers. We think we know better. So we add words, sentences, paragraphs, even chapters that don't add anything to the story.

There's a cost to the words you use. They cost your readers time. To quote another of Vonnegut's rules, "Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted."

We can learn a lot from song writers. They have hardly any room at all to stretch out and yet they paint very complicated stories very quickly.

Here's a powerful way to open a story.

"She hates my mama. She hates my daddy too."

Wow. Those are the opening lines from Lyle Lovett's song "She's no lady"

That sounds tough. Hopefully, she treats our narrator better than she treats his parents.

No?

"She loves to tell me, she hates the things I do."

A moment or two later we find out he's talking about his wife. In fact, the plot and character are completely laid out in the following Vonnegut-rule-satisfying lines.

"The preacher asked her, and she said 'I do'."

There's a sentence that advances the action and places us at their wedding in eight simple words. We're there in church watching the narrator marry this woman who would come to hate his parents and everything he does

Actually, we know how the story ends by what he captures in the next line.

"The preacher asked me, and she said 'yes he does too'."

I marvel at that line.

Look at how much is packed into that one line. We're at his wedding and he's asked one of the most important questions of his life. He's asked how he feels about spending the rest of his life with her.

And she answers for him.

I just described that in many more words that weren't nearly as effective as the eleven he chose.

Say more. Write less.