Frea Interprets Vonnegut — Rule #4

Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

Back in my stately undergrad days (they were stately—I went to a state school, see? Wait, that’s not what that word means?), I read Zissner’s book On Writing Well, which has in some way or other stuck with me through all these years. This is probably not as true as it should be, but I remember a vague passage where Zissner broke down people’s sentences to determine if each word was pulling its weight. Of course, this passage led to a series of clammy sweats from me, as it took me right back to Mrs. G’s Honors English in junior year, where we were required to diagram sentences.

Let me tell you, if I ever diagram a sentence again, it will be because I am creating a graphic novel.

But anyway, this passage stuck with me and you probably wouldn’t know it, given that I’ve got a 400,000-word-long story in the works, but it taught me something: economy. Every extraneous word? Cut. Ruthlessly so, even. If I have two scenes that serve the same purpose? Buh-bye, whichever scene just lost the coin toss.

Wait a second, Frea, you ask, how do I know which words are the extraneous ones?

Here’s a handy flow chart:
Is this word an adverb?
  • If no: it’s probably okay. Double-check anyway. You probably don’t need it.
  • If yes: is it the only one?
    • If yes: you may be okay. Double-check anyway.
    • If no: are there more than two?
      • If yes: nix that one. And probably the rest of them.
      • If no: be careful of Noah’s ark’ing your adverbs (the adverbs come two by two every time). Also, double-check anyway. You don’t need it.
Wow, I am really preaching the utilitarian method to writing today, and also looking at things on a deeper level than I really have to. Vonnegut’s rule talks about sentences in general, but it fits with the same rules as Zissner’s words. Every sentence has to tell us something. But wait, what about description? I’ve got a really pretty setting, and I want people to understand what it’s like, so I’ve waxed lyrical about the posies and the peonies and everything.

That’s great. You can learn a lot about your characters from how they view their surroundings (Fates Chuck hates open spaces. Fates Sarah views cramped spaces as distasteful). Is your character the type to notice those peonies and those posies? Are those posies going to make them sleep or something equally plot-worthy? If the answer to both of those was “No,” strike the flowers. You’re entertaining perfect strangers here, remember. Keep things moving.

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  1. Crumby12.3.12

    If someone needs me, I'll be squinting at my screen rereading what I thought I had finished writing last night. ;-)

  2. Ahahaha. I used to love using adverbs until I remember you telling me this a year or so back. Then I got all anal and was like, "Nooooo! Too many adverbs!" *swings metaphorical ax*


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