Sunday, December 04, 2005

Compression In Writing

Being a programmer, I have a fair understanding of what compression is when it comes to computers. I'm only going to bore you with a few techy-type paragraphs before I get onto how this relates to writing.

A computer image is a grid of coloured dots. The dots are so small you don't see them, you just see the picture. All these dots have to be stored in the computer and that takes space.

Now, if this image has a large area that's a single colour--let's say black--that area takes up a lot of space for no good reason.

Compression is a way of making information take up less space.

A simple way of doing this is to use an instruction. Instead of storing all those black dots separately, we have an instruction that says something like 'this many black dots'. The instruction is small, taking up much less space than thousands of black dots would.

Back to writing.

A sentence or a paragraph can take up more space than it needs to. Here's an example:

Winifred raised her eyebrows, looking perplexed. "This is most perplexing!" she exclaimed as she walked across the black and white spotted rug that was covered in light grey cat hair. She bent down slowly with her knees and reached her hand up to pat the one year old Blue Russian cat on its head, and as she did so, she thought about the problem on the rug. Below, next to her left foot, a red pool of blood was slowly spreading out into a circle around her brown leather shoes. Looking down at the blood, shaking her head, then raising it again to look at her cat, she also raised her voice, and exclaimed, "I will not have a dead body on my favourite rug, which was given to me by my long dead grandmother when I was too young to remember, only to be told this years later by the very same man who is lying here on the rug, dead, and in a pool of his own blood, my father!" she complained, exasperated.

This is an extreme example of overwriting. Notice how a lot of information is repeated. Winifred raises her eyebrows, looks perplexed, then tells us she is perplexed by exclaiming it. There is also a lot of unnecessary detail about the scene in front of her. Do we need to know so much about the rug or the cat? No. What is important is that her father is dead.

Winifred walked across the room and stepped over the body. Her shoe splashed into a pool of blood, which her cat was lapping up. She backhanded the cat across the room and said, "Who the fuck killed my dad?"

It amounts to the same information. There's a dead body on the rug and a pool of blood. Winifred walks across the room and is obviously distressed about the situation. But here she says one line which tells us she is feeling both upset and confused. I took some character liberties with the revised version and even included some action on the part of the cat, allowing Winifred to vent her frustration. I'm also not repeating information by telling you how Winifred feels, then letting her tell you, then showing you.

It's all compressed into a few actions and a line of dialogue.

Compression. Fascinating stuff.


John R. said...

I find the push for more compression in prose writing fascinating when compared to the movement for decompression in comic/graphic writing, where for years everything had to be so condensed that writers were hard pushed to play with subtler types of characterisation or building a setting. Squeezing everything into 20 pages of panels and such, rather than giving themselves room to air it out a little.

Personally, I like the idea of mainstream prose becoming more condensed. Too much woolliness creeps in when you have 90k to play with and no space limitations.

"There's a dead guy covered in stab wounds back in that carriage!"

"Hmm. Covered? And you all hated him? It's obvious. You
all did it."

"Shit. Poirot's got us. Fucking Belgians."

(Murder on the Orient Express in less than 50 words. Even the 'hmm' is optional.)

M said...

I think the cat did it. He always hated that rug.

, the text on your blog has changed to blue, which is impossible to read against the black - unless you highlight it - which I did. But perhaps this is just another lesson in compression?

Daniel Hatadi said...

JR: I'm going to have to start getting into graphic novels. I was one of the weirdos that actually read Marvel comics and ignored all the new, hip, gothic shit. Which is a mistake on my part.

John R. said...

Ironically, I was never into the Marvel-esque spandex & capes stuff and only got into comics much later when I found non-'comicky' stuff like Transmetropolitan and Sin City.