I was watching some “Every Frame a Painting” videos this evening, and his treatment of the Coen brothers’ technique with shot-reverse shot sequences put me in mind of something I’ve been thinking about lately, with writing.
There’s a lot of amateur writing that’s just unclear. Sometimes it’s misplaced modifiers that make you pause in the middle of a sentence to reread, things like “I smelled the oysters coming down the stairs for dinner.” (When the intended meeting is “As I was coming down the stairs for dinner, I smelled the oysters.”) Sometimes it’s awkward blocking, where the positions of the characters and the sequence of the actions is perfectly clear to the writer but the reader is wondering where that third arm came from. Sometimes it’s a consequence of trying to be flashy and impress people, where abstract latinate words and metaphors get thrown together into something close to word salad.
And there’s room, in great writing, for all kinds of stylistic pyrotechnics. But sometimes when you’re tying yourself in knots trying to write just the right words, it can be useful to come back to clarity and simplicity as guiding principles — what are the most precise words I can get to just literally describe what happens? When it really works, it’s like what the Coen brothers are doing in those shots: it seems like it’s so simple it ought to be boring, but actually it forces you to get in there and listen for the right word, the right gesture, the right emotion. It’s not that one style is superior to another style — I’m not a huge fan of minimalist writing — but I think it’s really easy for young writers in particular to think that their own plain and ordinary words are not good enough.
When you know that your own words are good enough, whether they’re plain and ordinary or sesquipedalian, that’s when you start to get your own voice.