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Eliminating Drag

*Originally posted by Frog Jones

I was just on a message board for writers over at Mythic Scribes, and I began noticing a common problem amongst new writers.

I’m making this post so that I can simply refer people to it whenever I run into this problem.

I open with a quote from “The West Wing,” a favorite show of mine.  This is a quote from Bruno, and he’s talking about political campaigns, but the words can be applied pretty universally:

“I have difficulty sometimes talking to people who don’t race sailboats. When I was a teenager, I crewed Larchmont to Nassau on a 58-foot sloop called Cantice. There was a little piece of kelp that was stuck to the hull, and even though it was little, you don’t want anything stuck to the hull. So, I take a boat hook on a pole and I stick it in the water and I try to get the kelp off, when seven guys start screaming at me, right? ‘Cause now the pole is causing more drag than the kelp was. See, what you gotta do is you gotta drop it in and let the water lift it out in a windmill motion. Drop it in, and let the water take it by the kelp and lift it out. In, and out. In, and out, till you got it…..If you think that I’m going to miss even one opportunity to pick up half-a-mile boat speed, you’re absolutely out of your mind. When it costs us nothing, when we give up nothing?! You’re out of your mind.”


So, why the hell am I posting that quote here?  Well, here’s a story’s opening sentence from one of these posts which I reference:

“A wrenching moment of forbidden hope stabbed at her fearful heart.”

And here was my response:

This is your first line. Remember that, before your reader gets here, they do not know anything about your story. Here’s what I think you’re trying to convey:

1. Your main character is female.

2. Your main character has noticed something to make her hopeful

3. Your main character has been beaten down so much during the course of events leading up to this that hope is a source of pain and fear rather than relief.

To those ends, then, let us look at which words are accomplishing what. This is how a new reader goes through this sentence:

A – an article, no real importance.
wrenching – Now we’re getting somewhere. This is a gerund, and it tells us something is being torn from something else in a painful fashion.

moment – Ok…the thing that is wrenching is a small period of time.

of – Into the prepositional phrase! We know we’re going to use this phrase to tell us about this horrible moment.

forbidden: Someone has ruled this moment off limits.

hope: She’s not supposed to be hopeful, then? That’s off-limits? Is the moment wrenching because the hope is forbidden, or is it the hope forbidden because it would be wrenching?

stabbed: Wait…I thought the moment was wrenching. Now it’s stabbing. Wrenching is a pulling, twisting word. Stabbing is straight, sharp, and an intrusion. Does this moment wrench, or does it stab?

at Yes, of course

her possessive, still waiting for a direct object here.

fearful Fearful? Because of the wrenching, the forbidden, the stabbing, or something else?

heart Physical? No, probably not physical. Moments can’t wrench or stab at the physical. This is the metaphorical use of “heart,” then.

What’s the result? Well, all of that is easy enough to sort out. It means the sentence takes an extra fraction of a second to understand. I, the reader, have to mentally discard the extra info before cutting to the meaning of the sentence. A sentence that normally takes me a fifth of a second to understand now takes two fifths.

That doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but let me put it another way; I have to spend twice as long reading that sentence as I do a clean one. This makes the sentence really tough to get through, like an overcooked piece of meat.

You want to convey your meaning to the reader as smoothly as possible. Any time you are writing, from here on out, remember this one rule:

Extra words create drag in the flow of your story.

I have revised your first sentence, and I present my revised version of that sentence for your consideration:

Hope stabbed her heart.

I have taken your sentence, and cut from it “A wrenching moment of forbidden” and “fearful.” Why? Because the stabbing does it for you. Stabbing is never something that is wanted. We know what she thinks about the hope; it’s stabbing her heart. As soon as I understand that hope is stabbing her heart, the rest of the picture grows in my head.

I also pulled “at.” “At” gave the chance for a miss. Hope hits. It doesn’t stab at someone’s heart, it just stabs their heart. Using “at” is an extra word that lessens the blow on the reader, and creates drag.

I used to have this exact problem. I still do, from time to time. Here’s what was going on with me, and you can take what you will from it.

I would have a very clear picture of what was going on in my head. I’d thought about the character, I’d thought about the scene until it burned its way clear through my mind. From my perspective, there was nothing about this scene that wasn’t completely obvious. I wanted to convey to the reader how I felt about the scene, and so I’d throw as many adjectives as I could. I was using them to express emotion.

The problem I was having was that, somewhere in the midst of trying to convey the emotion directly, I forgot that the reader didn’t know what was going on. When reading something, you’re brand new to the scene. You’ve got to sort through all the words the author has given you in order to form a cohesive picture of what’s going on.

The effect was this: my readers would know that they were supposed to be happy/sad/excited/whatever about something, but they had to work way too hard to figure out what that something was. I had forgotten to tell the story, and instead I was like the guy who stood there trying to tell his audience why a joke was funny. (See? Elephant…Eleph…’ell if….Rhino….ino….I know….’ell if I know? Huh? Huh?)
When I started to revise, though, I would feel exactly like you did. I would feel like there was less emotion, less gravity to the piece.

And there was. I had removed my emotions from the piece, and allowed the reader to feel their own. From my perspective, it was less. To a reader, though, it felt much more genuine.

I take a moment to note the irony of this being my longest post.

Anyways, if I’ve linked you here, it’s because your story has drag.  Never, ever miss an opportunity to pick up even half-a-mile boat speed.  If you’ve just come here on your own, then double-check your most recent piece of writing for drag, and make sure it contains nothing that doesn’t have to be there.

I began with a quote, and I end with a quote.  This one is from Benjamin Franklin, and it was told to Thomas Jefferson when drafting the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson was having this exact problem (and if that doesn’t put us all in good company I don’t know what can), and Franklin related to him the following story:

When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words, ‘John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,’ with a figure of a hat subjoined. But thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word ‘Hatter’ tautologous, because followed by the words ‘makes hats,’ which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word ‘makes’ might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy them, by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words ‘for ready money’ were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood, ‘John Thompson sells hats.’ ‘Sells hats!’ says the next friend. ‘Why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?’ It was stricken out, and ‘hats’ followed it, the rather as there was one painted on the board. So the inscription was reduced ultimately to ‘John Thompson,’ with the figure of a hat subjoined.”