Overnarration happens when authors use too many words to express what they want to say. Another term for this is “economy of words”. A good narrative will use as few words as possible to describe what is happening.
Consider the following excerpt from a novel I found on Amazon (The names of the characters have been changed to protect the innocent):
Margret tremulously cowered behind the scraggly hyacinth bush, concealing herself behind the dark green leaves. The ancient fountains stood cold and silent in the neglected garden. Scarcely breathing, she watched as the dark stranger made his way through the garden. Viciously searching any suspected hiding place, the stranger tore back branches, throwing aside shrubs and leaves. Slowly Margret crept backwards. Cautiously looking over her shoulder, she eased her way back toward an opening in the surrounding hedge. Sliding one knee back after another, she felt the errant twig under her at the same time she heard it snap. She froze. The stranger whirled around and glared toward the hyacinth bush. With long swift strides he crossed the crumbling courtyard and yanked the branches aside.
Use adverbs sparingly
Let’s talk about adverbs for a second. I was a cook one summer in a long-term care facility. The head chef told me to put celery seed in anything that had hamburger. It was a wonderful suggestion, one that I use to this day—but he cautioned me: a little bit goes a long way.
Adverbs are like that. Use sparingly. In fact, most writers will tell you to avoid them like the plague. However, if you pick up any novel published by any well-respected writer, you’ll see adverbs all over the place. So what gives?
Here are three rules for whether you can keep an adverb or not:
1. Does it say something that has already been implied elsewhere?
2. When you take the adverb out, does the sentence feel broken?
3. Never EVER use an adverb in a dialog tag (i.e., “I hate you,” she said viciously). Good dialog should imply what the adverb states (see rule #1).
So, let’s look over this paragraph and go on an adverb hunt. We don’t need tremulously. This adverb implies fear, and we already know that Margret is fearful because she is cowering. Next we have scarcely. I’d keep this one. It’s short and it adds mood, and if you take it out the sentence doesn’t work. After that we have viciously, which we can cut. The rest of that same sentence describes the stranger tearing back branches, throwing aside shrubs and leaves, etc. Then we have slowly, which we can give the ax. Margret is creeping backwards. It’s rather obvious that she is doing it slowly. Finally, we have cautiously looking, which just begs to be replaced with something shorter.
Saying the same thing twice
Next, let’s talk about saying things twice. Take the first sentence (offending adverbs removed):
Margret cowered behind the scraggly hyacinth bush, concealing herself behind the dark green leaves.
If you give this a careful look, you’ll see that the author describes Margret hiding twice. Do we need both? Here’s another one:
Viciously searching any suspected hiding place, the stranger tore back branches, throwing aside shrubs and leaves.
The first part is telling instead of showing. The next part is restating what we’ve been told, with some more showing thrown in for good measure.
You might think that the author is trying to add detail, or that she is trying to describe how the stranger is searching. But this sentence still sounds like it was written by an amateur, and here's why.
Your reader’s mind is powerful. A few carefully chosen words can evoke an entire scene, none of which you need to waste words describing. Never underestimate the reader’s own ability to fill in unwritten details.
Read that last sentence again. I’ll wait.
A good author will pick up on this. A few well-chosen words, and the reader will create the entire scene for you.
Let your work sit for a couple days before proofreading it. When you go over it again, listen to the flow. Pay attention to the implied image that your narrative creates in your mind as you’re reading it.
Revise and shorten
Now let’s look at this:
Cautiously looking over her shoulder, she eased her way back toward an opening in the surrounding hedge. Sliding one knee back after another, she felt the errant twig under her at the same time she heard it snap.
The two sentences kind of overlap in their purpose. Margret is cautious in the first sentence, then she’s sliding backwards on her knees (which itself is a cautious action). Then we have a rather wordy description of a snapping twig. We could clean this up and shorten it.
Look for places where your narrative starts to feel wordy. Pay extra attention to places where you describe a character’s actions. Remember, your reader’s mind is very powerful, and a few well-chosen words will convey a much tighter meaning than ten poorly chosen ones.
Here is the revised paragraph. I could probably tighten this up some more, but you get the picture.
Margret cowered behind the scraggly hyacinth bush. The ancient fountains stood cold and silent in the neglected garden. Scarcely breathing, she watched as the dark stranger tore back branches, and threw aside shrubs and leaves. Glancing over her shoulder, Margret spied an opening in the garden’s surrounding hedge and crept her way toward it, sliding on her knees. She felt the errant twig under her at the same time it gave a loud snap. She froze. The stranger whirled to face the hyacinth bush. With long swift strides he crossed the crumbling courtyard and yanked the branches aside.
Notice the difference?
In summary, three tools for tightening up your prose:
1. Cut out as many adverbs as you can.
2. Look for places where your narrative implies the same thing more than once.
3. Look for other ways you can replace longer phrases with shorter ones.
Less is more
What a really good example of writing that uses good economy of words? Go to http://brevitymag.com/. This site has short creative non-fiction essays, 750 words or less. It’s all brilliant writing, verbal ikebana, and candy for the mind!