Writing Excuses 7.4: Brevity

Brevity! Use fewer words!

After the obligatory “we-are-going-to-cut-this-short-after-the-intro” joke, we talk about how we can be appropriately brief, even in the context of writing epic fantasy. Mary offers us some rules of thumb for story brevity in the short fiction she writes, and Howard talks about how he accomplishes the extreme brevity of language required by his comic. Dan points out that the shorter you work, the more important your individual words become.


Give us a group of people on a long trip in space, with a problem, which they solve. Do it in 150 words.

Farenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, narrated by the author

28 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.4: Brevity”

  1. That truncation right at the end? Deliberate. The reason the file is 15 minutes and 18 seconds long? Because Mary’s plug for Audible at the beginning doesn’t count.

  2. I figured that was deliberate. It felt as such. I do have a brief question. How many viewpoints should a beginning author work with? I’m just about to start writing my second novel ever. The first one I wrote was first person with only one viewpoint. The one I’m starting I plan to have two main viewpoints but dip into maybe two more viewpoints occasionally to show things I think the reader needs to see but that the main characters can’t know. Is this too many viewpoints? Should I stick with just the two main ones and leave the others out?

  3. Great as always! I have two questions, though.

    1) I liked the example of describing a foyer by comparing it to a church. But what do you do in fantasy? Do lots of explanations in the beginning in order to be able to say “the entry hall gave him the same feeling as the temple at home”? Essentially, the question is: Is it fair to amortise brevity?

    2) Regarding language brevity: you mainly talked about how to give the same information with less words. Any tips on how to retain tone? For instance, my 3rd person limited character might be uneducated and have a limited vocabulary.

  4. @Raphael

    I think the lesson was to choose words that do more work. In making that choice you’ll pick the ones that preserve or amplify your tone.

    As to your uneducated character, you still have the tools that come with description of the setting, and character as well as your character’s blocking to convey what you want the reader to take away.

    Also ask yourself if you trust the reader. They will probably follow you without being led by the nose.

  5. I’ve been experimenting lately with leaving out more than I put in, a la Hemingway’s Iceberg Principle.

    Like jazz, it’s the notes you don’t play.

  6. A favorite author of mine for brevity is Roger Zelazny. The Amber books are so short, but so epic at the same time. He wrote in a clipped, hard-boiled style that I associate with older sci-fi, rather than fantasy. Despite the paucity of description, those scenes are incredibly vivid in my imagination…maybe more vivid than if he had described every detail.

  7. @JJR

    That’s interesting. I want to see for myself, but there are ten of those books. Do you recommend a particular one?

  8. @ K.W. Ramsey

    Try it without the lesser viewpoints. Try limiting yourself to two. If there’s critical information the reader needs to have, see if you can reveal it through one of those two viewpoints.

    If that doesn’t work, well, your story requires more viewpoints. There’s no wrong answer, provided you figure out how to do it right. ;-)

  9. Great episode–take an editing class is a very strong piece of advice–for those of us not in college are there any online courses that may be helpful? I mean I am not looking for a career in editing, but a good general understanding of the principles would likely be helpful…Maybe a book recommendation on editing would be all that I need…

    Good point on Zelazny! I do not really remember the Amber stuff that well–I read it when young, but there is some road fight short story with very slow & precise martial arts descriptions that is AMAZINGLY vivid in that clipped style you describe. The story, as I remember it, is very brief, and all the text is very focused on this one fight–short details on scene with long details on action create this amazing effect.

  10. @Tony, start with Nine Princes in Amber. The first five books are his classic series (you can read all five, because they are short! :-). The second five are supposedly quite different and are deemed lesser by the fans…I haven’t read them, myself.

  11. Thanks, guys, fun to listen to as always. I like the idea of increasing the density of interesting material. Howard mentions the Iceberg Principal above and I remember Mary suggesting writing description ad nauseum until you get to the tiniest details, and those are the things you should put in (I haven’t tried that one yet, but it intrigues me).

    One thing about not repeating – I’ve read one author who says “I tell you three times” so the reader still remembers it when it’s important. If a character has a special ability or there’s a Chekhov’s gun, we need to see it more than once before it becomes significant, in case the reader missed it or has forgotten it.

    I have to say, “painful emotional punch” is the reason I don’t read short stories much. Pain and darkness in the middle of the story is fine, but, too often, shorts shove the dagger into you at the end and leave you there bleeding.

  12. I’ll be brief. First time caller, long-time listener. You guys rock! Here’s my answer to the writing prompt (sorry Mary, you got edited out to save space):

    Howard’s scalp shone with sweat. “HOW many days to Excustoria?”

    “Fifty.” Brandon’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”

    “Fifty?” Howard squeaked. “Not… fifteen?”

    Brandon gasped. “Are you telling me…? The food supply…?” Howard nodded, trembling. “Dammit!” Brandon stabbed the wall intercom. “Dan? Get in here!”

    Dan appeared a minute later. “We’re in trouble,” said Brandon. “Howard only packed fifteen days’ food!”

    “Brandon was giving orders on neurowave! Bad signal! It sounded–”

    “Shut up Howard!”

    Dan gazed out into space through the tiny dining room porthole. His face betrayed no alarm, only sober calculation. “Let’s see. Not enough food for seven weeks. Propellers engaged, no turning back.” For minutes, the ship’s engine made the only sound. Presently, he turned to Brandon. “What would John Cleaver do?”

    Howard yelped and ducked behind a dining chair. Brandon smiled as Dan grabbed a knife from the table and advanced on Howard, flashing his teeth. “Howard cutlets, anyone?”

  13. I would highly recommend people check out microfiction, I’ve seen a lot of authors do it as a sort of practice on twitter pages. Some of the best microfiction I’ve ever encountered is done by R. Sean Borgstrom in the roleplaying book Nobilis.

  14. I have listened to writing excuses for a long time and love how writing excuses challenges writers to do writing prompts, but I never see other people’s writing prompts and no one sees mine.

    I think it would be very cool if listeners could post their writing prompts as a comment on an episode, but also allow other users to comment on their writing prompt. You would basically have a multi-tiered commenting system, but this would give new authors the ability to get feedback from other writing excuses listeners on their writing prompts.

    I love how Writing Excuses is there to help out new writers and I think this could be a cool way to help new authors get feedback on their fledgling work and help build a community of beginner writers within the writing excuses web site.

    I see that http://www.writingexcuses.com is powered by wordpress and from experience working as a php developer I think it would be very easy to implement this. If you think this is a good idea please let me know ;)

  15. Hello! First time commenting, and I’m making my way slowly backward through the podcasts after stumbling upon it some time last year.

    I’m working on what should be a full-length sci fi novel, and I’m wondering about something that relates to this topic:

    In a (potentially) technobabble-heavy, ‘future social lingo’ sense, would it be cheating/annoying/blasphemy to include a glossary in the FRONT of a story, so that I can keep from using thousands of words to try and explain terminology in-character or in narration? The story takes place in part on a generational starship and there are a lot of terms used socially that don’t have a context in another environment, ones that I intend to keep and add flavor to the social structure.

    I know that some authors use front-end glossaries for characters (Erikson, for instance), but… for terms? I personally like the idea, and that’s what really matters, but I thought I’d search out some input from the experts before going through the process of making a reader-friendly glossary.


  16. “What do you mean we’re off course?”

    “Ma’am, the dish isn’t pointed toward home anymore. We’re out of communication. It’s working, earth is still where it should be, if our ass isn’t pointed at it anymore, then we’re going the wrong direction.”

    The captain swore. “Dish camera’s the only one still operating, too. I take it you can see Earth in it?”

    “Yes ma’am.”

    “Higgins, you following this?”

    He nodded.


    He shrugged. “We shouldn’t fuss with the dish, that’s for damn sure. We’re better off pitching the whole ship ‘til home’s back on-screen: we’re flying blind here, and that dish’s auto-align is the closest thing to a nav system we’ve got.”

    “Do it. Now. Then calculate how long we were off course and what it’ll take to get back on — and gentlemen? Not a word to the ambassador.”

  17. The star was bigger than the windshield, shining a bright blue that turned everything white. The gravity pull was too strong, and that was probably the end of their long drift time. It was 500 years ago for everyone else, but for them only 10 had passed. They were doing a delivery task to a neighboring galaxy but their motors failed in the acceleration tunnel, and they missed the wormhole. Drifting at nearly the speed of light, time passed slowly for them. They had met right before the trip, and neither thought much of the other, but when one is the only person you see for a decade, it is hard not to fall in love. That was true for both of them, and while they had thought of suicide lots of times during their trip, now they thought of all the time they spent together, in their long last kiss.

    151 :/ And the problem isn’t solved… But well, that’s as good as I can do.

Comments are closed.