De-Stem Your Prose: Writing Advice from SIDEWAYS

“They didn’t de-stem, hoping for some semblance of concentration, crushed it up with leaves and mice, and then wound up with this rancid tar and turpentine bullshit.” Miles  (Paul Giamatti) Sideways.

This is my favorite way to describe over-wrought prose.  Back in college, writing “leaves and sticks and mice” in the margins was a shorthand among my friends to cool it on the adverbs and get back to the action.  Too many writers use miles and miles of description to give their story some semblance of depth, when in reality, the character has spent the first three pages getting dressed.   Yes, description is important, but leaves and sticks and mice do not good wine make.

(A variation on this comes via Nick Mamatas, genius; “I’ve seen more first pages ruined by socks and coffee than I care to count.”)

Description is tough.  Too little and your action takes place in a black box.  Too much and it weighs down the story.  Description is the guitar solo of writing — too much, and your audience will just get bored:

Nick’s great advice boils down to this — if it’s something everybody does on a regular basis, you don’t need to describe it at great length.  You don’t need eight words to describe a tree, or the Keurig or putting a CD into your car’s CD player.  Your reader will trust that, by the very nature of your character being present, that he/she woke up, put on their socks and arrived at this location.  It’s about picking the details that are crucial to the story.  If the tree suddenly has a dead body hanging from it, that’s important — otherwise, it’s just a tree, who cares?  If the protagonist has a cup of coffee and it tastes off because her lover poisoned it, by all means, show her getting that cup of coffee.

But useless details clutter up the prose.  It isn’t world-building if the words lie thick and flat on the page.  The key to description is this — how does your protagonist interact with the world?  Miles’ description of the wine is a) action-oriented; it’s in dialogue and b) illustrates the difference between this swill and his beloved pinot noir.*  He’s interacting with the world, explaining it to the uninitiated (Jack).

Ask yourself this: Does my protagonist already know this scene?  Is this a building he walks by every day  and if so, why would he make note of it today?  Chances are, he wouldn’t — and if that’s the case, it’s a pretty good indicator that your prose is full of leaves and sticks and mice.  But if there’s a sudden new door on the building, or a dead body on the steps, or even some graffiti, it gives your protagonist a chance to interact with the world that you’ve created for him.


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