Concise writing in fiction can be an important asset, but when it comes to creative writing, what really means when we say a text is concise?
If we look it up, the definition of the online Oxford dictionary for concise reads like this: giving a lot of information clearly and in a few words; brief but comprehensive.
At first blush it seems this definition presents a problematic aspect. In fact how can a piece of writing be brief and yet comprehensive? How can it give a lot of information in just a few words?
The simple answer to these questions is that it can’t and it doesn’t.
One would therefore conclude the definition for concise must be wrong.
But this is not necessarily the case. In fact, conciseness is better understood in relative terms.
For example, if it’s true that to grasp the basic of quantum mechanics you cannot hope to read through just one leaflet of a dozen easy pages, it’s also true that you don’t need to slog through dozens of books, each painstakingly detailing each and every aspects of the subject.
As a result we can say writing is concise when it carries out a successful mediation between thoroughness and briefness.
From this also follows that if a concise sentence can convey exactly and completely all the information a longer one conveys then the longer one is redundant, bloated.
In technical writing such kind of writing has to go.
Instead in creative writing this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, in creative writing the length and redundancy themselves of a passage could convey information and serve a stylistic purpose.
Just look at the examples below.
A) “Hi Ron, how you doing?”
B2) “So fucking great I can’t believe it!”
B3) “Good. Good, John. Thanks for asking.”
B4) “All things considered I can consider myself lucky enough to be alive.”
It’s apparent that conciseness if applied literally and without a grain of salt would lead to the instantaneous death of creative writing and literature.
How you doing?
Fine thanks. Fine thanks. Fine thanks…
As we have seen, this is most apparent in dialogue.
But it’s equally true in every other part of a novel.
For example, to convey a particular kind of mood, or to control pacing, a writer might decide to write long and articulated sentences even when shorter ones would seem to convey the same information.
Let’s take a look at two diametrically opposite examples. The ending sentence of two famous works:
A ) Well, I’m back
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings trilogy – The Return of the King (1955)
B) So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars will be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? The evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty
Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)
To say that one ending is better than the other because it is concise would be simplistic and mindless. Each ending is the natural and organic result of the story that has come before.
Maybe Tolkien decided for its succinct last line to show once more the Hobbits’ simple and down-to-earth nature.
Instead Kerouac’s went the opposite route. He wrote in an elegiacal and ambiguous tone. He wrote a long sentence full of things and impressions, maybe to reflect the narrator’s interior landscape.
An extreme case
Instead, a famous novel where concise writing would have led to a way better experience for many of its readers is Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
When I read it and had to wade through all those informative chapters devoted to whales I wasn’t exactly happy. Not in the least.
It wasn’t just that those chapters had little to do with the story, they interrupted it. They brought it to a screeching halt.
Of course, as the author of the novel, Herman Melville had all the rights to write his novel in whichever way he wanted. But that doesn’t entail we readers have to put up with his choices.
Indeed, if you look at Kerouac’s ending you’ll see that the last sentence is long and rich of images but it’s not redundant. And rather than interrupting the flow of the narration, it modulates it.
And that’s where accomplished writers really show their talent. Because they can turn a chase into a sort of dream-like slow-motion sequence, and then ignite inner dialogue like a rocket on the launching pad.