The Best Way to Tell Your Story Is to Get Out of Its Way*
By Chelsey Clammer
Here’s an idiom: Too many cooks in the kitchen.
Now let’s metaphor that:
Cook = Narration
Kitchen = Story
As in: too many narrations in the story.
Which is another way of saying that saying way too much in an essay or story can make it crowded, which can then make the actual story you are trying to tell quite unappetizing for the reader. (Note: that sentence could have simply said, “When you put too much in a story, it makes it challenging to read.” Welcome to the point of this essay.)
I had a mentor in grad school who taught me the importance of letting words stand on their own. In her feedback for one of my essays, she had scratched out an entire paragraph of my writing except for two words, then wrote the following comment in the margins: “Here. This is what you are saying.”
There are many ways a writer needs to and can get out of her story’s way. If you’re anything like me, you might have WAY too much detail in your rough drafts. I tend to give every noun I write down a color and texture, and then throw a simile in there for it. I’m also an over-explainer in my early drafts. I tell the reader story and then explain the meaning of that story in case she didn’t get it. This is called not trusting your readers to understand things. It’s also called boring.
Over-explaining can be especially harmful in regards to nonfiction because we essayists are often accused of doing some serious navel-gazing—where we can’t look beyond our own thoughts and opinions to see a larger story at work. Or any story at all.
To avoid this stomach-staring writer sin, we must work on limiting the number of thoughts and opinions we include in our writing—just like how we need to avoid over-describing every noun and action. Obviously, we have to provide some thoughts and details to guide the reader, but inundating the page with the unnecessary can make the reader overwhelmed. Not to mention bored.
Two quick tips in the form off sarcastic rhetorical questions to help veer your writing away from these too-much violations:
1) You know what I think?
I think that saying “I think” is, for the most part, unnecessary. I think it’s a brief throat-clearer that prepares the reader for the statement that is about to be said, but I also think the reader doesn’t ever really need an introduction to a statement. I think that a writer should step away from the story so that the focus becomes the actual story. This brings the reader to the front row of the story that is unfurling, eyes open and watching—at least I think so.
2) Will you get out of my face?
It can be good to tell your reader what a narrator’s eyes, ears, nose, forehead, complexion, wrinkles, lips, chin, cheeks, eyebrows, dimples, etc. look like, but over-describing one aspect can make the rest of that person’s body seem like it’s not there. When describing someone’s looks, make sure to do so in a holistic way (i.e., make sure a face is attached to a body).
Final example time!
I think that because of the fact that she was the type of woman who liked to do things on her own, plus the fact that no one else was around at that moment, Mrs. Dalloway, who lived on her own, decided after not-too-much deliberation that she would buy the purple and blue and pink flowers from the florist down the street herself because she was an empowered woman.
In other words:
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
I’ll leave you with this handy exercise to practice tightening up your writing and letting the story speak for itself:
- Take one of your stories or essays that you think is a final draft
- Cut 500 words out of it
- Re-read your story/essay
- Be awed
A previous version of this essay was published by WOW! Women on Writing.