A lot of what I do involves helping writers give readers what they expect, and what readers expect has changed over the years. Many modern novels include sex scenes or language that would have gotten them banned sixty or seventy years ago. Movies and television have made readers less patient with leisurely story development than they used to be. Even little things like tolerance for –ly adverbs has evolved over time.
But it’s worth looking at the principles of storytelling seem to hold steady, even while others shift with the culture. These editorial constants are a way to understand what a story really is and how writers habitually go wrong in telling them. If your storytelling is out of step with your times, then updating your skills is not a serious problem. But when you’re out of step with the ages, then your facing something more fundamental, and harder to fix.
For instance, writers have apparently always been partially blind to how well their writing comes across to their readers. This leads them to include either too much detail or too little. In Mark Twain’s epic 1895 takedown of James Fennimore Cooper, Twain lists a series of literary “rules” that Cooper violates. For instance, an author shall:
Say what he [or she] is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
Use the right word, not its second cousin.
Not omit necessary details.
Twain shows how to apply these principles in a second essay (published posthumously in 1946), in which he actually line-edits a paragraph of Cooper, improving it substantially by simply removing nearly a third of the words. Many of his edits yank out elaborations of points that are already obvious and unnecessary descriptions of emotion, something I still do a lot of today. His cuts are in italics. [Read more…]