How many words do you need for a story?

Rosie the running dog at rest

Rosie the running dog at rest

We have a new dog, Rosie, younger than our “old” dog, Penny. Rosie is a different variety of mutt: the more energetic variety. Rosie likes to herd Penny with nips to her withers, and wants to run run run run run.

Problem is, Rosie is more interested in the world at large than in us and the treats we offer, so we don’t let her off leash at this point. Penny, on the other hand, always returns to us if we remove her leash, after investigating tantalizing smells (near as I can tell, what most fascinates her are logs that serve as chipmunk mausoleums).

Last week I met a neighbor’s father in the woods during the morning dog walk. He doesn’t speak English; I don’t speak Chinese. He sized me up: one dog ambling, leash-free, the other leashed and, frankly, a bit angst-ridden. He gestured to Rosie and asked, with his face and his hands, why she wasn’t loose like Penny.

I responded, “Oh, she [I mimed running] spwhhht” (this made-up word represents sort of quick whistling windy sound made by a fast-running-away dog. I swear.).

Ah, he nodded, and he continued westerly whilst I went east.

I’ve returned to this exchange several times over the past several days, as I’ve revised, and tweaked, and tinkered with, and edited and revised again, a short story.

Which words do I need? Only the necessary ones.

I made up an exercise for myself during my latest effort at word-smithing: I subjected every single word in the story to what I now call the walk-in-the-woods test. Would I try to pantomime and make up new sounds to express what that word meant, if I were conveying my fiction to someone whose language I didn’t share? If so, it’s earned its place. If not? Delete, delete, delete.

Of course, a story written in English is intended to be read by those who understand the language, and there’s depth and nuance available to native speakers that even the best sound-effecting pantomime among us can’t touch.  But a story that doesn’t run at the heart of what I’m trying to say? It’s a miserable dog on the leash of a writer’s vanity.

Stories can show us all the places life teems invisible to those who walk fast and talk too much. Set your stories loose, and aim them at the best, most interesting part of your figurative forest, be that chipmunk mausoleums, the creek bottom, or gopher holes.

3 responses to “How many words do you need for a story?

  1. Nice, Les!!!

  2. I like your new word, but I believe there are alternate spellings

  3. Pingback: Standing on the table, howling | the Art of Practice

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