Monday, 17 February 2014

The Craft of Writing: Economy of Style

A book I've just been reading, and a TV show I've just watched, made me think about the value in writing of an economical style. If a writer avoids wasting words and scenes, the material makes so much more of an impact, and this is, I think, true in all forms of fiction. Short stories, certainly, but also novels. Now, a novel's length allows space for some digression, and there are plenty of examples of this working very well. On the whole, though - and certainly for writers who are not very experienced - I think that less is more.

The book in question is a Golden Age mystery by Leo Bruce that I'll cover on this blog shortly. It's actually an interesting and relatively original story, with a memorable setting. There was plenty to like about it. But for me it fell short of the highest standards because there was just too much padding. Too often, I was willing Bruce to get on with it. And that's not a reaction that a writer wants in readers.

I had a very different experience when I watched again an episode of Taggart that I last saw when it was screened, way back in 1987. This was The Killing Philosophy, written by the brilliant Glenn Chandler, and it was a masterclass in how to write economically. From start to finish, the story packed a real punch. There are plenty of thrillers from a quarter of a century or more ago that show their age. But this screenplay was clever and occasionally witty, and included some interesting observations about society and people's behaviour, without labouring them.Chandler was ambitious enough to pack a great deal into his story,and he managed to do so without being cumbersome because his style is lean and he never overdoes things.

The Killing Philosophy is the story of a masked man - "the Bowman" - who terrorises a series of women in Glasgow. When a weird student falls for an attractive married woman, he comes up with a cunning plan to dispose of her husband, and the plot complications come thick and fast. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. When it was first screened, I was just thinking about the idea that would become my first novel. I like to think that Glenn Chandler's brilliant example reminded me of the need to keep the story driving forward, and it's a lesson I try to keep in mind when writing to this day.

5 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - I couldn't agree more. When a story isn't bogged down by drawn-out dialogue or excessive detail, it keeps the reader much more engaged.

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Archived program from Radio New Zealand includes Ngaio Marsh stating, "Detective fiction has to be written with the very greatest economy."
http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/thevault/audio/2565466/the-vault-dame-ngaio-marsh

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Margot.
Elizabeth - great quote - thanks for the link, much appreciated.

Ann Cleeves said...

Well, I kind of agree but I don't think there are rules. Some writers' style is luscious and even over-blown - think James Lee Burke - and others take detours from the plot that I'm happy to follow - Christopher Fowler on the weird history of London for example. I don't need one action-packed scene after another to keep me enthralled.

Martin Edwards said...

Ann, quite, the only rule about writing, I suspect, is that there are no rules. The factual stuff in Dick Francis' novels is a different kind of example. I think there's a distinction between flabby writing and writing that deviates from the main storyline. The latter often works splendidly, as you say.