Blog 10: Sacred Rite
Hello all you bewildering wildebeests, today we have a piece from K.L Randolph on Wrting.com.
It was a darkly lit room. Cold and damp from the water seeping through the cobbled floor and walls. It was a circular room with a stone table in the middle and four high backed chairs carved out of bedrock. Leading into this chamber were four cobbled hallways. This chamber was empty all but two days of the year. Today was one of those two days. On this night the darkness was broken only by the flickering of a few candles around the room. Soft chanting began and a faint light began to creep toward the center room from the hallways. Soon there were four figures cloaked in black, their faces hidden standing around the table. This was a place of anonymity, even they did not know who the others in the room were.
Today I want to begin by taking the paragraph as a whole, which is almost entirely devoted to description. While in theory this is acceptable, it suffers two significant flaws, the first being that it is generic, which makes it boring and thus more of a chore to finish than entertainment (how many times have you heard or read some version of dank, dark cold?) The second flaw, which is not entirely unrelated to the first, is that it drags on, strolling through the description instead of striding. (The desired pace for description depends on its content, with more unique, emotionally intense and interesting ideas benefiting from slower scrutiny, while their counterparts detract from the narrative if the author waxes too long on them.) Combined, these flaws make for a slow, somewhat tedious opening paragraph. The solution? Streamline. This does more than just remove the flaws, it puts momentum in the prose via powerful verbs and concise structure, making the prose more pleasing to read in of itself without need of over elegance. With that in mind, let’s begin.
I would combine the first three sentences. The current iteration emphasizes the first sentence with its brevity and forthrightness, but that emphasis is wasted because there’s nothing particularly interesting or complicated about a ‘dark room.’ (a ‘dark room’ and ‘darkly lit’ room are almost indistinguishable from one another, and thus largely meaningless to distinguish in this instance.) The separation also necessitates additional words, being that three sentences require three verbs and three subjects, etcetera, when a properly structure single sentence can sing with but one, carefully chosen of each. Once combined, we excise the unnecessary and the words or phrases that detract more from the narrative than they add (this is a governing rule of strong writing, if something is unnecessary, but adds more to the story through rhythm, excitement or interest, preserve it.) Here, the water’s origin, which is significantly less important than the water’s presence and won’t disturb most readers if removed. (Most readers are quite familiar with how water enters rooms.)
Next, I would cut the rooms circular nature as that is likely to bear little relevance the narrative (the descriptive elements are also unlikely to bear immediate relevance, but cultivate atmosphere, thus justifying their existence. There is nothing immediately ominous about a circular room.) I would cut, ‘in the middle’ as needless specificity and it being the most likely location for a table here. There may be a few other minor tweaks but we’ll get to those shortly, for now my edits:
—It was a dark room, cold and damp from seeping water with a table and four high-backed chairs carved from bedrock.—
This iteration is almost half as long, and its brevity helps to emphasize it defining words, here being: dark, cold, damp, seeping, carved and bedrock, with the strongest being those last three due to their distinctness. ‘Seeping’ is a word most everybody knows, but one which they rarely encounter or recall, making it novel, as opposed to ‘dark’ and ‘cold’ which occur to most people almost daily. Minor changes I committed were exchanging ‘out of’ for ‘from’ (because that reads better in my opinion, and is a single word as opposed to two) and deleting the ‘the’ before ‘seeping water’ as unnecessary.
Looking at it again, we can also marry it to the subsequent sentence simply by replacing that last ‘and’ with a comma and migrating it over a few words.
—It was a dark room, cold and damp from seeping water with a stone table, four high-backed chairs carved of bedrock and four cobbled hallways.—(We restored the first ‘stone’ since the table was no longer riding on the chairs’ ‘bedrock.’)
Another minor change was switching the ‘from bedrock’ to ‘of bedrock.’ The original rewrite benefited from the longer ‘from’ helping to conclude it smoothly, but the new rewrite is longer and shifts the conclusion point, which makes the shorter, less noticeable ‘of’ serve better. In this iteration, the ‘four’ also doesn’t echo as much since this structure plays more heavily into its alliterative aspects, whereas previously I felt it echoed immensely.
(This next segment is also best treated as one section, so we will be abandoning the sentence-by-sentence method for now.)
Segment Two:This chamber was empty all but two days of the year. Today was one of those two days. On this night the darkness was broken only by the flickering of a few candles around the room.
Note how in this sequence of sentences, either for style or necessity due to structure, the author mentions time repeatedly and in every sentence, with five mentions of dates all told in a three sentence segment. When you find yourself using similar concepts in a short span, it is an indication of inefficiency and may benefit from restructuring even if they’re separated by a paragraph. Here, we don’t need to do that. We just need to find the core information the author is trying to convey: one, these meeting are rare, twice a year to be exact, (the concept of rarity is emphasized in the original sentence and thus mentioned here as well, though I will ultimately remove it as being heavily implied) that ‘today is one of those days’, and that there are candles. Those points are the soul of these sentences, so how do we combine them? An easy solution is that the presence of candles can allude to the second, leaving only the first and third. (We already know it’s dark.) So, my edits are:
—Never used more than twice a year, tonight the room flickered with sparse candles.—
This doesn’t read as well as I would like, it lacks atmosphere and the ‘tonight’ reads somewhat poorly. The only major cut I made besides those mentioned above was removing ‘around the room’ as unnecessary description. It is evident the candles are in the room and since they’re candles as opposed to candelabras, torches or braziers etc, they’re not on the walls or ceiling. They could be on the floors, but I imagine that visual improves the scene. Still, on the whole I would deem it acceptable.
Segment three:Soft chanting began and a faint light began to creep toward the center room from the hallways. Soon there were four figures cloaked in black, their faces hidden standing around the table. This was a place of anonymity, even they did not know who the others in the room were.
This segment struggles with mostly the same issues as the first two, but less egregious. I imagine the author was attempting to cultivate a sense of spectacle and continuously reinforce the atmosphere, but prose is the wrong medium to create spectacle. Spectacle derives from the narrative, as does much of atmosphere, and without that foundation prose will ultimately feel hollow. Conversely, if you have that foundation, prose attempting to cultivate spectacle will distract from it and clutter the narrative. In my opinion, prose is best used to accentuate themes as opposed to conveying them. So, what would I change?
Let’s begin with cutting ‘toward the center of the room,’ which is wordy and offers little descriptive value since the author places the lights in the hallways immediate after. After that, switch ‘began to creep’ out for ‘crept,’ which is two words shorter but also because ‘crept’ is a stronger solo. (‘crept’ being a slow movement removes the need for ‘began’ which serves mostly to convey its gradual progress.)
The second sentence is passive and a little cliché due to their robes being black. It also separates the readers from the narrative by glossing over the acolytes’ arrival. I would delete ‘black’ with the reasoning that it’s cliché-ness detracts more from the story than including it provides. Then, I would delete ‘soon there were’ and replace with ‘preceding’ to combine with previous sentence. After that, since we need a new verb, I would alter the ending phrase to ‘as they assembled around the table.’
All my edits:
—Soft chanting began and a faint light crept from the hallways, preceding four figures, cloaked and veiled, as they assembled around the table.—
Switched to ‘veiled’ since it’s one word as opposed to two, and it’s more distinctive.
This leaves the final sentence, which is wordy mostly from glue words and thus just needs stronger words and maybe a little cutting. The solutions I’m considering are (in conjunction with being married to previous sentence) “each ignorant of the others’ identity” or “each a stranger to the others.” I prefer how ‘stranger’ reads, but it has a particular connotation that potentially disagrees with the author’s intent. If these four preformed this ritual habitually, they’re not truly strangers, just anonymous, which spawns a different possibility. “each anonymous to the others” which is a more literal translation of what the author means, but might suffer a little in the rhythm department. I think I prefer it though under the context of “say what you mean.”
So, my edits:
—Soft chanting began and a faint light crept from the hallways, preceding four figures, cloaked and veiled, as they assembled around the table, each anonymous to the others.—
And all my edits for the paragraph:
—It was a dark room, cold and damp from seeping water with a stone table, four high-backed chairs carved of bedrock and four cobbles hallways. It was never used more than twice a year and tonight it flickered with sparse candles.Soft chanting and a faint light crept from the hallways, preceding four figures, cloaked and veiled, as they assembled around the table, each anonymous to the others.
I made two small changes, the first being “it was never used” for the purpose of improving rhythm, and the second removing ‘began’ since ‘soft chanting’ can use ‘crept’ as effectively as ‘a faint light’ can.
Another potential change is “four cloaked figures, veiled and anonymous even to one another, as they assembled around the table.” I know the ‘cloaked’ reads better here, but the rest if up for you all to decide.
All that aside, this paragraph as a whole does suffer from being a description dump, which is obviously hard to fix without completely altering the story. It’s just something to bear in mind for your own writing.
That’s all for today, you garrulous guppies. Have fun. If you like our content, please consider subscribing. If you like what you’ve read here, check out some of the author’s other work.