|"Guitar" cc by Anna Longova|
Source: Wikimedia Commons
There has been much speculation about the effect of social media on fiction writing—in particular Twitter. Everywhere you go, authors and readers bemoan the possibility that our attention spans are shrinking to 140 characters.
While I don't have any firm opinion on whether or not the novel will go the way of the dinosaurs (and, hey, even they've had a revival or two via Jurassic Park and Jurassic World), I think novelists can learn something about brevity from other formats.
I'm a country music fan, which gets me a lot of teasing from just about everybody I know, but I've come to the conclusion that it’s the storytelling inherent in this form of music that attracts me. Keith Urban doesn't hurt any, either, but that’s beside the point.
What has fascinated me lately about this storytelling, however, is the emotional punch it can pack in very few words. And, whether you're writing a 150,000-word fantasy novel, a novelette, flash fiction, or a tweet, putting as much energy as possible into each and every word is crucial to keeping your audience reading until the end.
One of my favorite songs that demonstrates this technique is “Blown Away,” written by Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear, and performed by Carrie Underwood. The song goes like this:
Dry lightning cracks across the skies
Those storm clouds gather in her eyes
Daddy was mean old mister
Mama was an angel in the ground
The weather man called for a twister
She prayed blow it down
There's not enough rain in Oklahoma
To wash the sins out of that house
There's not enough wind in Oklahoma
To rip the nails out of the past
Shatter every window till it's all blown away,
Every brick, every board, every slamming door blown away
Till there's nothing left standing,
Nothing left to yesterday
Every tear-soaked whiskey memory blown away,
She heard those sirens screaming out
Her daddy laid there passed out on the couch
She locked herself in the cellar
Listened to the screaming of the wind
Some people called it taking shelter
She called it sweet revenge
There’s backstory, setting, inner monologue, emotion, suspense, and action. On top of that, the imagery is vibrant and intense. All of that in a grand total of 139 words. How often do you get that much information into fewer than 200 words of your prose?
One of the great songwriting techniques is the use of adjectives to add to the imagery of a noun. “Every tear-soaked whiskey memory” evokes a long history of lives made miserable by her father’s alcoholism. Another song that piles on adjectives to good use is “Dirt,” also written by Chris Tompkins, but in collaboration with Rodney Clawson, and performed by Florida-Georgia Line. The chorus goes like this:
It’s that elm shade
Red roads clay you grew up on
That plowed up ground
That your dad
Damned his luck on
That post game party field
You circled up on
And when it rains
You get stuck on
Drift a cloud back
Behind county roads
That you run up
The mud on her jeans that she peeled off
And hung up
Her blue eyed
Summer time smile
Looks so good that it hurts
Makes you wanna build
A 10 percent down
White picket fence house on this dirt
To be honest, it’s the last sentence that caught me first: “Makes you wanna build a 10 percent down white picket fence house on this dirt.” How’s that for a full evocation of small-town Southern life, all in 15 words? But then all the others hit me: “Elm shade, red roads clay,” and “post-game party field” and “Blue-eyed summer-time smile.” All that imagery in as few words as possible fascinates me.
It’s these details that bring the story alive for every reader—or listener, in this case. What comes through is the authenticity of the story. And authenticity doesn't mean that the writer has experienced this exact scenario personally. It’s just that we've all come close to these experiences, and specifics will evoke your own memories to make you connect with it in your own way.
I once listened to a new singer/songwriter who wrote gut-wrenching, amazing songs I absolutely loved. In between sets, he would tell the stories behind the stories, as singer/songwriter types are wont to do. I usually love those moments when you get to peer even deeper into the heart of the song. But this artist said more than once that people would ask him if certain songs were true stories, and he said that he heard a story like it on the news, or read it in a newspaper, and then thought of his own twist on it or another natural outcome.
I wanted to go up on stage and take the mic away from him and tell him to knock it off. The answer to, “Is that a true story?” when you're a storyteller is, “Yes.” Because it is. It’s a story about human experience. And, believe me, if you can think of it in your own head, it’s happened in real life (and you've probably made it more believable than how it happened in real life). We know authenticity when we hear it because it’s part of us. It’s happened to somebody, and storytellers are the ones privileged to make those stories known.
Joan Baez once said, “It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.”
Whether or not the average reader’s attention span is shrinking, we owe it to our audiences to make an impact in as few words as needed, and to make those words speak the truth. So, if you want people to be blown away by your writing, try paring your sentences down to what’s absolutely necessary and then layering vivid but sparingly constructed details to make your world pop up from the page.
|Image (c) Jennifer Della'Zanna|
Jennifer Della’Zanna is currently revising her first novel, Chaos Rules, which was part of her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and specializes in historical fantasy.
She also freelances and serves as a public speaker and educator, and works for Ed2Go as an online instructor of courses on medical coding and medical transcription, among others.
Keep up with Jennifer's creative projects by following her on Twitter!