Brevity – keeping things simple, keeping the story moving – is something I always try to keep front of mind in my writing. Is the information necessary? Does it impede the story flow, rather than enrich it? Is it adding anything to the reader’s view? I generally write in a minimalist style, so brevity is important, getting in those key details and trying to find more creative, intelligent and engaging ways to communicate the story.
• The first thing you study is “horses.” The metaphor is – if you drive a wagon from Utah to California, you use the same horses the whole way. Substitute the word “themes” or “choruses” and you get the idea. In minimalism, a story is a symphony, building and building, but never losing the original melody line. All characters and scenes, things that seem dissimilar, they all illustrate some aspect of the story’s theme.
• The next aspect, Spanbauer calls “burnt tongue.” A way of saying something, but saying it wrong, twisting it to slow down the reader. Forcing the reader to read close, maybe read twice, not just skim along a surface of abstract images, short-cut adverbs, and clichés. In minimalism, clichés are called “received text.”
In The Harvest, Hempel writes, “I moved through the days like a severed head that finishes a sentence.” Right here, you have her “horses” of death and dissolution and her writing a sentence that slows you to a more deliberate, attentive speed.
• No abstracts. No adverbs like sleepily, irritably, sadly. And no measurements, no feet, yards, degrees or years-old.
In The Harvest, Hempel writes, “The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.”
• What else you learn about minimalism includes “recording angel.” This means writing without passing any judgments. Nothing is fed to the reader as fat or happy. You can only describe actions and appearances in a way that makes a judgment occur in the reader’s mind. Whatever it is, you unpack it into the details that will re-assemble themselves within the reader.
Amy Hempel does this. Instead of telling us the boyfriend in The Harvest is an asshole, we see him holding a sweater soaked with his girlfriend’s blood and telling her, “You’ll be okay, but this sweater is ruined.”
• Last point – “on the body.” Hempel shows how a story doesn’t have to be some constant stream of blah-blah-blah to bully the reader into paying attention. You don’t have to hold readers by both ears and ram every moment down their throats. Instead, a story can be a succession of tasty, smelly, touchable details. What Spanbauer and Lish call “going on the body,” to give the reader a sympathetic physical reaction, to involve the reader on a gut level.
These rules obviously can’t be applied to everyone’s work, but knowing them, thinking about them, will help you in being more creative and cerebral in how you communicate story. I especially like the ‘no adverbs’ rule, and I believe applying this, or at least thinking of options whenever you do use an adverb, makes you re-think what you’re saying and come up with creative solutions. I’ve noted this before, but it’s like Twitter, where you’re restricted by a certain number of characters, forcing you re-think what you want to say, abbreviate, and often you’ll find a smarter, more succinct way of wording it because you have to. You should also apply this to your writing, try to think through the best way to say what you want that is the most evocative and, as Chuck says, the most ‘on the body’, eliciting a physical and mental reaction with the reader that will better engage them with your scenes and characters.