Literary Shorthands

It’s inescapable that we want to charge through the banal parts of a story and get to the good stuff. It’s your job to break out the red pen and condense the bits which drag. But what do you lose when you make it short and sweet?

Right now I’m reading some grimdark shlock to get to sleep, at times it’s good bad and other times it’s frustrating, and the writer is clawing at the vertical slopes of his own pitfall. You’ve heard it before: The antihero protagonist is attacked at the start of chapter one and by the end of the chapter he (telepathically) sees his best friend get gruesomely killed.

I get it; hit the ground running, in the first ten pages someone has to die or have sex, and there are legitimate concerns around pacing the opening and hooking the audience in. Fridge the best friend and now the protagonist can carry out his vengeance with moral impunity for the entire plot.

The problem (the one I’ll tackle here) is the writer feels the need to constantly remind the reader that the best friend and the protagonist had a special bond (magical in nature) and were just the best of friends all through their lives. Every chapter, and sometimes multiple times per chapter, the protagonist reflects on how close he was to his best friend. Where first I laughed I soon skimmed. Sure the expedient establishment of the relationship and the early death kickstarted the story with a Doc Marten but a noticeable percentage of each subsequent chapter is spent developing that relationship. It’s too late and going back to the well takes up too much time.

Conversely, the pacing would be streamlined with a slower opening of a chapter or two spent with the same two characters from childhood up to the death. If you have the compulsion to play catch up for your shorthands then it probably wasn’t worth the opportunity cost to do so in the first place.

The macro shorthands that get the plot going can save a chapter or two if used properly but smaller shorthands can’t be discounted. One of my favorites is what I dub utility words. These are words or short phrases strongly influenced by the context they’re used in. Maybe the best known is the Italian American classic “forget about it”, a phrase that can mean just about anything depending on inflection, situation, attitude, volume, intensity, delay, speed of delivery, associated gestures, etc. It can be powerful by inviting the audience to read between the lines to decipher what a character really means or leave them guessing as to someone’s fate. It’s a bellwether for a scene’s tone. Unfortunately, it’s easier to comprehend with actors on a stage than mere words on a page and using the utility word without clear context leaves it muddled.

You can easily get away with a vague utterance in conversation with someone you know and have them intuit what you really mean. They ask if you want delve another episode into your binge show and you sink into the couch with a grumble. They’ll get the picture and ask what else you want to see. But in a book this doesn’t always work. If it’s too early into the story we haven’t had time to connect with the characters and understand what they mean with their vagaries. You can try to choose an action where everyone can pick up the subtleties but then it’s not really subtle and the first thing we see from the character doesn’t define them individually. Not to mention the thing you consider common will likely not be thought of similarly by everyone else. If the setting is especially foreign in time or culture or universe, having the whole team fist bump and high-five for a job well done will feel off-kilter.

You’re left with “He considered the offer to go to the movies and replied, ‘Meh.’”

What kind of “Meh” was that? I don’t feel like going out “Meh”? Maybe if you sweeten the offer, make it your treat, I’ll go “Meh”? I’ve got work to catch up on but if you can give me excuses not to think about that so I can enjoy my evening I’d be happy to spend it with you “Meh”? These can be the product of a well-developed interpersonal relationship but then you have to spend the time developing that relationship and the key here was to save time with a shorthand. But if no one understands the “Meh”, then you have to laboriously explain it.

When you have to explain the intuition it ceases to be intuition and becomes logical reasoning. Not the most enthralling way to paint a conversation about going to the movies.

Like a Swiss army knife utility words are useful in near every situation but if you have a specific job you might want to use a dedicated axe or saw.

The shlock I brought up at the start committed a minor sin with the narration, “What. The. Fuck?” After writing that so many times myself it’s easy to see inside the writer’s mind and know he was also sick of that phrase and thought the punctuational difference would freshen it up. It’s comforting. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel but a new coat of paint can go a long ways.

This is another issue for utility words. Since they are so versatile and can be used in many places, there’s a temptation to do so. Fuck has impact. As Billy Connolly said, “Fuck off is such as lovely pair of words.” The issue is when you start questioning the character’s vocabulary and social tact when half their responses are solitary curses. Fuck is a good canvas for the reader to slot themselves into the character’s shoes but it’s so generic anyone could come up with it. James Bond has witty rejoinders. Antihero McYourfacehere spices it up with the occasional shit or “Bollocks,” [he said]. “Shitty fucking bollocks,” as I read in another piece of shlock. Some schlepping shlock.

There’s no point in rolling the die to assemble a new string of curses, only to then narrate how angry or jokey this or that fuck was meant to come across and how it was perceived, but give the character something that’ll make them stand out and stand, as a quote, on its own legs.

If it’s a throwaway line or plot point there for convenience in an otherwise well thought out story then insert the shorthand and move on. If you want to say who the main character is trying to avenge isn’t important because the rage has enraptured them for so long the remembrance of that feeling is the only emotion and motivation they’ve left after their single-minded pursuit stripped all other meaning from their life and driven their family and friends into the foggy past and now the only way to justify the morally obtuse actions they’ve undertaken to that end is to reach that very end, then go ahead and shorthand in a faded photograph in their wallet and a gruff, grumbling, “I don’t talk about what happened that day,” vigilante detective. It’s not that the fridged character didn’t have importance outside their value to the main character but their inability to accept fault has evaporated that importance. Their withdrawal from society has withered their ability to interact civilly with everyday people, hence the fucks.

I don’t know if this person will figure out what they’re doing wrong but I can enjoy that ride without having to read about how much their unseen lost loved one meant to them in every chapter. If you set the components in a character’s brain in order their actions and inner monolog just make sense intuitively.

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