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I tend do this a lot:

A straight curve appeared after a moment. I slowed my pace and circled around. Once I came out of it, I caught sight of something.

It was a girl. Probably a sixteen or seventeen. She was standing right in the middle of the trail, facing to the right, sunlight pouring on her from above.

I wonder if I should write this instead:

A straight curve appeared after a moment. I slowed my pace and circled around. Once I came out of it, I caught sight of a girl.

She was probably a sixteen or seventeen. She was standing right in the middle of the trail, facing to the right, pouring on her from above.

Does the second example read/sound better? Since I'm not delaying the narrative/action?

EDIT:

How about this?

An straight curve appeared after a moment. I slowed my pace and circled around.

Once I came out of it, I caught sight of a girl. Probably a sixteen or seventeen.

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a straight curve? –  SF. Jun 5 at 10:57
    
Ha, meant a sharp curve. –  Alexandro Chen Jun 5 at 10:58
    
Straight angle turn, then. –  SF. Jun 5 at 11:03

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I would unequivocally say: It depends.

Sometimes it is good to add a small delay to build anticipation or mystery. If the intent of the paragraph is that at first the hero isn't sure what it is he sees, and then as he gets closer or looks more carefully he begins to make it out, then it is good to break it into multiple sentences. The more mystery that you want and that is appropriate, the more extra sentences would be useful.

You certainly should not use this technique all the time. You don't want every paragraph in a story to be, "I walked to another place. It was a room. There was something in the room. It was a person. The person was a man. The man was my friend Bob. I said something to Bob. What I said was a greeting. The greeting was the word 'hello'. Bob replied. Bob said words. ..." Etc. That would be tedious and ridiculous.

But at key places where something is supposed to be a surprise or a revelation, dragging it out a little can be very good and appropriate. Like, "And then I realized who the killer was. It was Fred" builds just a little bit of tension before the revelation, while, "And then I realized that Fred was the killer" does not.

In your example, if the point and the context is that seeing this girl in the woods was a surprise, and that when he first saw her he did not realize it was a girl, your first paragraph is appropriate. If the intent is that he saw her and immediately realized it was a girl, then your first paragraph is unnecessarily cumbersome.

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You're focusing or zooming in on an element appearing in field of view. Think in terms of eyes or camera, and time one spends reading the text as time spent looking at the object, and pace the description accordingly.

If you walk into a room, and the middle is occupied by an elephant, and you approached from its front, delaying the shock at seeing an elephant will be completely misplaced.

On the other hand, as you observe a silhouette coming out from morning mist, you will resolve details gradually, as they become visible.

Nevertheless, "something" is a terrible placeholder for an out-of-focus object. If she was hard to see at first, you can give "a silhouette". If she was well visible, "a girl" or at least "someone". Unless you were stumbling in pitch darkness, you saw thousands of "somethings" and another one really doesn't help.

In your situation, you need about as much time as one takes to read "I caught sight of a girl." to catch sight of a girl standing nearby in bright sunlight when you emerge from behind a curve, so the second approach is right. Now if it was dusk, fog, and she lay huddled under a bush, you might go for the first description, possibly adding approaching and peering through the gloom.

Simply, pace exposure matching speed of reading to speed of focusing on the elements of the scene as if it was for real. Obvious, clearly visible object - immediate focus. Fine detail - huddled at the end of the description. Approaching a hard-to-see object - start with vague and solidify as details become visible. Passing in a blur - just a blurry hint of shape. Vision impaired - perception impaired. Need a second or two to evaluate what/whom you actually see - paragraph break. And match that first glance impression to what you actually see at a first glance. Reserve "something" for severely impaired sight.

(I don't really like the second option you give. "As I came out of it..." would be better, "once" seems to imply the curve took quite some time and effort.)

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To me, each version seems better than the last. The final version is much shorter, but conveys the same information, which is a sign of success to me. Rewriting over and over is always a good thing. Removing as many unnecessary words as you can is a good thing. Also, if you read the final version out loud, it sounds better to the ear. The early versions are a bit stuttery and distracting.

I like this quote from Paul Auster, and often thing about it as I write:

"...what I’m constantly striving for in my prose is clarity. So that, ideally, the writing will become so transparent that the reader will forget that the medium of communication is language."

-- http://www.believermag.com/issues/200502/?read=interview_auster

This is definately not everyone's style. If you like flowery poetic prose, you want people to pay attention to the words. If you want the reader to sink into the story, you want the words to become "transparent", as non-distracting as possible.

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