I recently came across this quote from Chekhov, and for me it summed up the key to writing. It’s all in the words. This may sound like a very obvious statement, but simplicity is not necessarily something you link with literary fiction.
One Word At a Time
For anyone starting a lengthy work, it’s a marathon of words that lie ahead of you. But like Anne Lamott says in her iconic book, Bird By Bird, you are writing one word at a time. The word becomes a sentence, becomes a paragraph and pretty soon you have a chapter.
What Word do I Use Next?
This is where Chekhov comes in. The moon is shining is a perfectly fine phrase. We can see the moon, we know there will be a light cast on the ground or the field. But you and every other writer this side of the Steppes could have written that phrase. But the glint of light on broken glass? Now there is a description that’s worth writing.
How Else Can I write It?
Chekhov is throwing down the gauntlet and making us work for our writer’s crust. So let’s see what we can do. If the glint of light is the moon, how else could we say that? The circle of light, the distant glow? No, it’s neither, because it’s just a glint. So fleeting glimpse might work – the fleeting glimpse of white, of light, or the fingernail moon, fingernail light. So we’ve given ourselves a few options.
On Broken Glass? What does that Mean?
We know the moon is not shining on a field. Unless it’s a field of snow or ice. More likely it’s a lake.
So the moon is shining on a lake. What then is a different way to say a lake? A puddle? – not quite…
A shimmer or ripple of water. Ripple of water’s not bad. What about the color? At night, a body of water would look black, so the moon is changing the color from black to white.
So we could have the fleeting glimpse of white danced between the light and dark of the lake….Mmm… Bit wordy.
Let’s try again. The fingernail moon pierced the darkness of the lake. Getting better. But still not the glint of light on broken glass.
Very occasionally you find a phrase that falls off the end of your pen that’s the glint of light on broken glass. But more than likely, you will have to work your muse into helping you find the solution. As I’ve said before, all writing is rewriting, so if you start with the moon shone on the lake, and it sounds flat, just play with the words. One word at a time, as we’ve been doing.
Showing is Experiencing
Show don’t tell is the mantra of every writer, and the bane of every beginning writing. It is in essence what Chekhov is saying. Make me feel I am in the moonlight. And I do when I see the glint of light on broken glass. It’s there in front of my eyes. I’m in the scene, not outside. And that’s crucial for your readers to experience the story for themselves, not second hand. To experience the same thing as the character who can feel the hot breath of their pursuer on their neck as they come out of the woods and see the glint of light on broken glass. It stops them short, and makes them either pause and get caught, or find enough light to see the one path that they can escape on. It has in one fell swoop opened up the tension to be life or death in a way that “I ran toward the moonlight” would never have done.
All of this is with the use of simple words. You don’t need to be a walking thesaurus to create fantastic prose. Simple is usually better. While I like to learn new words, I hate reading a book where I need a dictionary by my bed stand.
So I’ll leave you with the hot breath of the pursuer on my neck, as icicles of light dance on ripples kissing the boat. I snatch the rope and disappear into the black night.
How would you have reworded the quote? What tricks do you use to try and find the right words for your writing?
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