Alex White, the author of the The Gearheart, shares a new guest blog post.

Guest blog post

The Gearbox: Overstatement

by Alex White on Apr.22, 2009, under The Gearbox

Hey, everybody! Welcome back to The Gearbox- the weekly writing column where I tell you how to write what I want to read. I realize that a lot of what I talk about is already covered in books like Between the Lines and Stephen King’s On Writing, but I don’t care! I’m covering it anyway!

This week: Overstatement!

Overstatement is probably the biggest killer amongst young and aspiring writers. At least, when I edit other people’s stories, overstatement is the thing that I gripe about the most. Writers should realize that you only have a few words to capture a reader’s attention, and overstating everything is like shoving a stick in the spokes of the reader. As readers, we want to get into a nice flow, where the information trickles off the page, straight into our brains. We don’t want some overblown double-explanation of every idea in the story. Words must be chosen like the cuts on a bonsai tree- too few and you have chaos; too many, and you have stripped your ideas bare.

There are many kinds of overstatement:

1) Adverbial/Adjective Overstatement

Adverbs and adjectives are nothing short of fallbacks. They’re modifiers for when a noun, verb or preposition doesn’t exist to cover the thing you’re writing about- and they’re important. As writers, they’re one of the greatest weapons we have in our arsenals, but frankly, they can be overkill. They’re powerful, and too many writers employ their use when a well-chosen word would have served better. Consider the following sentence:

“The angry man walked quickly from the room.”

Every single time you pull out an adverb or adjective, you should ask yourself, “Is there a word that I can use that connotes the meaning that I am about to apply with this adjective or adverb?” This is where thesauruses come in handy. I believe that there are no synonyms in the English language- only subtle and hidden shades of meaning. Pull out a thesaurus and find the right word. A much better sentence would have read:

“The man stormed from the room.”

There. It reads a little better now, right? I would wager that all of the meaning of the first sentence was captured in the second sentence, and it added a nice visual. Adverbs can be useful, but most of the time they’re just crap. Adjectives are a little better, but you have to start from the right noun before you begin modifying it.

2) Character Description Overstatement

Okay, this is a pet peeve of mine. It’s a special kind of overstatement, of which I am particularly guilty. Character description overstatement (or “CDO” to save me some typing) happens when you describe a character in specific terms of his or her appearance, even if those attributes are not plot relevant. CDO is typically worked in at the most awkward times, and it serves to destroy the pace of a book during the first few critical pages when the book is supposed to hook the reader. Here’s an example:

“Andy bent down to wash his face, and when he looked up, he found himself looking into his own hazel eyes in the bathroom mirror. He casually examined his wavy, neck-length, straw-blond hair and strong, Roman nose. Looking down, he could see the muscles on his torso. He didn’t think he was much to look at, but the ladies disagreed.”

That is terrible! This should only happen in a novelization of a Quantum Leap episode! So much of that doesn’t really need to be said, and if someone doesn’t like the way that character looks based upon your description, you might have lost a reader. Consider, instead, this substitute:

“Andy was graceful, with the form of a gymnast, and his smile made him irresistible to women.”

By speaking in abstractions, you allow the reader to unconsciously create the character that they would prefer to see in their version of the story. That heightens the reader’s involvement quite a bit.

It’s not too bad, though, if you use the character description as a chance to either lampoon or illuminate your character’s personality, for example: “His clothes were perfectly ironed,” or “her teeth, blackening from years of addiction to sweets.”

3) Dialogue Attribution Overstatement

The last type of overstatement that I want to talk about is dialog attribution overstatement. DAO happens when you place some sort of indicator in the dialog attribution about how a line is read, even though there is really only one way to read the line. For example- suppose that you have a tense scene in a psychological thriller wherein the killer has just been discovered and becomes hostile. Our heroine tosses dirt in his eyes and bolts into the woods. The next line of dialogue is:

“‘I’ll kill you for that, you little witch!’ he shouted, his voice full of rage.”

Don’t waste page by adding an adverb, or “his voice full of rage.” We know his voice is full of rage. He’s trying to kill someone, and they may have seriously injured him. He’s not going to be jovial.

Now Stephen King and I diverge on this next point. He says that you should only use “he said/she said” dialogue attribution, but I think it’s okay to get spicier with your verbs. What is most important is that you disambiguate without becoming tedious.

Surely, though, I’ve belabored the problems of overstatement enough. What do you all think?

For more from Alex White check out The Gearbox.