The very first time I ever went skiing, my mother slapped boots and skis on me and – essentially – dragged my 6-year-old body down the slope. I hated it. I swore I would never ski again. Sighing and exhausted, my mother sent me to ski school the next day. The instructor said, “Keep your tips together and make a wedge.” That single bit of advice was enough to let me ski independently, and I fell in love with skiing. I’m certain the instructor said more that I just didn’t listen to and, according to my parents, I was a rather wild skier from the start. And as I grew up, grew stronger, and grew to be a better skier, just keeping my ski tips together wasn’t enough.
Writing is no different. As you move from the green circles, through blue squares, and on to black diamonds, you need to focus on the nuances of what you know and not the novelty of something new. I call this learning to “write small.”
When you first start learning about the craft of writing, the broad strokes can make a lot of sense. “Oh! I need to make my villain more powerful,” you might say. But have you actually crafted a better villain? “Oh, I need to differentiate how my characters speak,” you might say. But has your dialogue improved? “Oh! I need to [insert your improvement here] to make this scene better,” you might say. But HOW can you actually make the improvement?
Writing small is more difficult than it may seem. It requires taking the large, major action or image of any given moment and showing it to the reader in a highly specified way. It requires a deliberate balance. You can’t bludgeon or bore your reader with large, vague actions, but you also can’t confuse them with extreme minutiae.
Let’s take a broad, generic example of a character entering a room and sitting down with friends. Take the major action that you want – something simple like, “He sat down” – and examine it under a microscope. What are the most minute, most specific, actions a character does just “to sit”? How do other objects and people act-react-interact as the character sits? Consider the chair or couch, perhaps a pillow on the couch or the rug beneath chair. Maybe consider a body part not normally associated with sitting. Think about the chair itself. In your head, imagine or list as many of those minute actions as you can. Then choose ONE image – yes, one and only one (okay, maybe two). Write that and move to the next specific image or action.
Consider it like a camera zooming in:
Long Shot (character is small with lots of background) = He sat down / She took a seat.
This generally gives the action, but not in any way that does anything more than Tell action. In other words,
all characters in all books who ever sat at any time ever... they all “took a seat.” Thus, you haven’t included an image or somehow utilized a character trait or specific image in this action.
Medium Shot (closer but still too far away) = He dropped into the cushions / She lowered herself spritely.
This is an improvement because it includes HOW the action was done; either by using a stronger verb like “dropped” which gives a different connotation than “lowered spritely”. These two characters, while both doing the same general action, still do it differently. Thus, even sitting in a chair can indicate something about the characters.
Close up (Character fills the frame) = The chair creaked under his weight / The taut cushions buoyed her.
These examples don’t even mention the act of sitting at all, but rather show the sat-up object’s reactions. From these sentences, we learn that the characters sat but also something about the sat-upon objects and the physical weight of the characters.
You can also move into the poetic and bring in elements that seem unrelated. “She sighed into the couch cushion” or “He disintegrated into his seat”. The key verb here still shows the broad action but, because it’s “written small,” it indicates more than just the action and in a way that brings the detailed image instead of the vague action.
While the examples above look at a single sentence, this idea grows exponentially when you pair multiple sentences together. Review your work with a fine-tooth comb, and ask “Can I show this more specifically” or “Can I give this to the reader from an alternate angle?” – in other words, “Can I write small?” Just like a movie camera, can you show the readers a series of specific images or actions that, when the reader pairs them together, form a coherent and specific story?
Give the readers just the single thing that represents the whole – trust them to infer/inductive reasoning.