Take the 2-minute tour ×
Writers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for authors, editors, reviewers, professional writers, and aspiring writers. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I common critique I receive is that I add too many unnecessary actions/descriptions to a scene. Most of the time I just add them to make things "flow" more smoothly.

This is a piece from a short story I'm writing:

Eri glanced at her watch. Half past four. She'd been in the subway since morning, doing nothing in particular—just watching trains come and go, people getting on and off. A typical commuting scene. Though Eri had always seen the subway in a different way. To her, it was the place where the flow of time temporarily stopped. The platform where life paused as one selected the next destination. Perhaps that was the reason she had stayed here for so long; she secretly wished time to come to an halt. But why did she want that? What she was afraid of?

The train arrived shortly after, and Eri got on it. As they exit the station, she looked outside, but all she could see was a fast moving blur. Cars, buildings, trees, they no longer formed a coherent image. Or at least not one she could recognize.

Once reaching Akigawa Station, Eri headed to exit number three and waited there. She glanced at her watch. She had arrived a few minutes earlier. Short of things to do, she watched people pass by. She thought about the earthquake again. She thought about how each one of them had experienced something she hadn't. A crucial event in the collective memory of the city. Would she ever be able to interact with them the same way as before?

Before long, a gray Toyota stopped along the sidewalk. It was Eri's father. She rushed down the steps, and leaped inside the car.

I edited out many of the unnecessary actions. I'm not sure whether it was enough, though. Are there still unnecessary actions/descriptions? It's there a good way to know what to skip and what to keep?

share|improve this question
add comment

3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The rule of thumb I use for short stories is that every single sentence should either add to your theme, build your setting, or give insight into your character, while progressing the plot. Let me try and explain by working through your example.

Note that everyone writes differently, and this is only my opinion - hopefully the comments elucidate my point and are helpful to others, instead of simply being "do this" or "do that" kind of feedback.

Eri glanced at her watch. Half past four. She'd been in the subway since morning, doing nothing in particular—just watching trains come and go, people getting on and off. A typical commuting scene. Though Eri had always seen the subway in a different way. To her, it was the place where the flow of time temporarily stopped. The platform where life paused as one selected the next destination.

On the whole (I'm not going to pick at grammar or oddly phrased sentences here) this is a good paragraph to set the scene and theme. We know the theme will be based around the flow of time in some way. Each action and description reflects that, so there's no need to cut anything.

Perhaps that was the reason she had stayed here for so long; she secretly wished time to come to an halt. But why did she want that? What she was afraid of?

This is rather unsubtle. You're telling, not showing. It's better to show us her hesitation, her unwillingness to step on a train lest time start moving again. That kills two birds with one stone - you get your "the train arrived and Eri got on" action, but this time it has import. Her action has meaning within the greater context of things. Those are the kind of actions and descriptions you want.

The train arrived shortly after, and Eri got on it. As they exit the station, she looked outside, but all she could see was a fast moving blur. Cars, buildings, trees, they no longer formed a coherent image. Or at least not one she could recognize.

As I mentioned above, each action you describe should contribute to the greater context. The description about the scenery passing in a blur contrasts wonderfully with the start where you talk about how in the station, it seems as though time's stopped. Hence, you'd keep them.

Once reaching Akigawa Station, Eri headed to exit number three and waited there. She glanced at her watch. She had arrived a few minutes earlier. Short of things to do, she watched people pass by.

These actions are necessary to progress the plot, but you use a lot of simple sentences which don't add to the setting or theme. You were talking about the flow of time earlier - tie it in! (Obviously, if your main theme is something else, then adapt as necessary.)

She's arrived early, so can you use that? Or perhaps you can describe the brisk pace of the people around her and how it makes her feel like she's being swept along in time's inevitable flow. You get the idea.

Or you could use it to build your setting instead. Do you want to highlight the decay of the city? Describe the tunnel(s) or building she walks through to get to the exit accordingly. Rusted pipes, scraps of garbage, etc. Or maybe you want to highlight the false face the city shows. Then you'd talk about the flashing ads, clean white decor and shiny floors, and contrast with bits and pieces that seem out of place for such a place.

She thought about the earthquake again. She thought about how each one of them had experienced something she hadn't. A crucial event in the collective memory of the city. Would she ever be able to interact with them the same way as before?

How does this tie in with your theme? At first I thought the story was about time, but now it seems like we're moving into memories and inter-personal relationships. If this reflection doesn't play a crucial part in the story, time to cut your darlings. If it does, then you need a much stronger link between your initial talk of time's flow and these thoughts. Thematic consistency good. Jumping randomly from theme to theme bad.

Before long, a gray Toyota stopped along the sidewalk. It was Eri's father. She rushed down the steps, and leaped inside the car.

Again, actions without import. If you're going to introduce her father, and the car, give them both meaning. Perhaps the car swerves out from the stream of others on the main road to pull alongside her. (Stream of time, yeah? Though you can probably think of a better action.) Or if you did bring the story across into the memories/relationships territory, then you can draw on the impending meeting between Eri and her father as context for these actions.

#

Hope that helps explain it somewhat!

share|improve this answer
    
I just wanted to say that normally, I don't bother giving line-by-lines here, but I've seen your questions around and have been inspired by how you're truly trying to improve your craft. ;) –  Lexi Oct 6 '13 at 12:40
    
Thanks a lot! I like the phrase action without import. I'll consider the points you made. Well, the story is about a girl who fails to feel an earthquake, so there are many themes: change, time, etc. (by the way, you meant there are grammar mistakes and oddly phrased sentences in the passage? I'm not an native English speaker so I may have missed something.) –  Alexandro Chen Oct 6 '13 at 12:56
    
Yep, that's what I meant. For example: "Though Eri had always seen the subway in a different way." It's an odd kind of fragment, crying out for a preceding clause. I'd either put something at the start or rephrase it. Having many themes is fine, but I feel that for short stories, you need to distill the theme down to single line that you want the reader to go away with, and build it out from there. In your case, the inciting incident is that the girl fails to feel the earthquake, but how does that link with your themes? Is there an underlying guilt that they're built from, for example? –  Lexi Oct 6 '13 at 13:48
    
Thanks. I'll rephrase that sentence. Well, the main conflict of the main character is that she is afraid of change or losing her solid ground. The earthquake is a kind of metaphor (as well as the fact that she didn't feel it). So I guess change and time, for instance, are just little branching themes. –  Alexandro Chen Oct 6 '13 at 14:08
add comment

Taking into account Lexi's answer and your comments:

An express breezed by and disappeared into the tunnel. Eri glanced at her watch: half past four. "Not long now," was all she thought. She'd been in the subway since morning. Trains and people, coming and going. Eri felt at peace here, where time stopped, where life paused between destinations.

Her train arrived; she got on. Late daylight flooded in as they burst aboveground. Close by, the outside was a fast-moving blur. Cars, buildings, trees were incoherent images of remembered things. Only the distance was clear to Eri.

Here it was, Akigawa Station. She got off. The crowd rushed her to exit number three, then rushed off on important business. She glanced again at her watch. "I'm early," she said, aloud. More time to think about the earthquake, about how everyone hurrying by had experienced something she hadn't. It was a crucial event in the collective memory of the city, and she'd been denied participation.

A gray Toyota slipped out of the traffic and stopped along the sidewalk. Eri's father waved through the driver's window. She rushed down the steps, and leaped inside the car.

share|improve this answer
    
Original = 248 words. This version = 185 words. –  dmm Oct 7 '13 at 14:59
    
That editing was a pretty good. Thanks a lot. –  Alexandro Chen Oct 7 '13 at 15:09
add comment

I just have one thing to add to the above. I'd omit this line: "A typical commuting scene." Why? Because you just described 'a typical commuting scene' immediately preceding it: "...trains come and go, people getting on and off." And there it's in the form of action, which is good. In my opinion, this makes the 'typcial' fragment superfluous.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.