“Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentences should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
William Strunk, Jr.
One of the best ways to improve our own writing is to read other writers: Seeing how they do what they do — or fail to. That’s why I love my reading group — we read for technique: We look for clues about how writers create certain effects and for ways to apply what
we’ve learned to our own writing. In our little tribe, David Popiel has emerged as the master of the incisive read: A skilled lawyer for many years, he has a great eye, not only for detail but also for the arc and structure of a story.
We just read Love and Summer by William Trevor. Here are a few insights (mostly David’s!) on some of the techniques used in this spare and elegant novel:
The beginning of the story focuses on building the key characters and hinting at crises that have brought the characters to where they are. We see the echoes of one character in another — invisible ties that bind them.
He develops characters by showing their daily routines — we learn who they are by seeing how they live their lives. He creates character through narrative vignettes that are very self contained — almost like mini short stories (a genre Trevor is known for).
He balances showing and telling with care: He’ll mention a characteristic and then show it in action. Or he’ll describe a character’s disappointments or decisions, then sum up the outcome in a short declarative sentence.
His dialogue is very spare, so every word counts and does double duty: It reveals character and moves the story forward. He reveals character’s feelings mainly through their actions and inner monologues.
His prose is very rhythmic: He uses strong verbs. He also uses two or three adjectives to create lists that unfold rhythmically. He uses short sentences at the beginning and end of paragraphs. He varies sentence lengths within paragraphs.
He shifts point of view often, but mentions the character’s name in the first sentence so the reader won’t be confused.
He’s generous to his characters. He’s nonjudgmental about their lives and the decisions they’ve made, though he conveys the weight of their choices and longings.
Reading for craft is fun and fruitful. Bravo, David — write on!