Welcome back to Writing Wednesday, where I take an aspect of writing and try and break it down for you! This week, I’m taking a look at Prose.
Last time, we discussed Voice, which I described as being composed of three parts: Diction, Rhythm, and a certain je ne sais quoi. But I want to get a little deeper into the different components today, particularly Diction, Rhythm, and a previously unmentioned third: Structure.
Over at Pub(lishing) Crawl, member Julie Eshbaugh (author of the forthcoming Ivory and Bone) writes a lot about prose, and she gives the best advice on how to “hack” your way into better writing. Her most recent post, Building Blocks of a Novel: Word Choice, delves into a lot of what I’m going to touch on today, but I have my own spin on things, of course.
First things first: let’s define Prose. Google says it is “written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure”, probably to distinguish it from poetry. Fair enough, but I would argue that both poetry and prose aren’t all that different. A poem is a work that is more evocative than narrative,1 but prose must necessarily be more narrative than evocative, especially in a long-length work like a novel.
HOWEVER. Prose can certainly be evocative, but that must be secondary to clarity. Good writing is clear writing. Good prose is one that tells a story, with minimal confusion. And you would be amazed how difficult the ability to write clearly and concisely actually is.2 So let’s go further into the parts of prose that contribute to clarity.
As previously defined, diction is word choice. But I also think diction is related to the old adage Show Don’t Tell. It’s the difference between:
“Stop,” he said angrily.
“Stop.” His voice was low, flat, cold. His anger chilled me to the bone.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with either choice. The first tells you the character is angry, the second shows you how. The character doesn’t get angry by shouting; he is the sort of character to hold in his emotions. The first is a shortcut, the second is character development.
Varying your sentences with adverb shortcuts (telling) and character development (showing) paints a complete picture of a character over the course of a novel. But imagine an entire novel told in adverb shortcuts or character development. The first speaks to an amateurish level of skill but the second points to overindulgence.3 Choice is important here: what words you choose, and how you use them.
You might have noticed my propensity for threes. Three is a magic number. I like when things come in threes, especially when I’m writing. This is stylistic quirk of mine, and one of which I am cognizant. Sometimes I choose to use it, sometimes I go back and trim them all out. Why? Because of the need for variety.
Clarity helps keep the reader from being confused, but variety keeps the reader from getting bored. Some books are incredibly difficult to read, not because the prose is confusing, but because it is stultifyingly dull. I once had an art history professor who spoke in monotone, droning on and one about neoclassical art, until we all fell asleep. Monotony comes in many forms: tone, speech, and prose. Monotony comes when there’s too much of one thing, and not enough of others. Rhythm can break up monotony by giving the reader patterns to recognize (like in music), and a break in rhythm can intentionally call attention to a scene, a line of dialogue, a character moment.
I didn’t mention structure in my previous post about voice, mostly because I don’t consider the structure of prose to be part of voice. Structure is the foundation of all writing. Do you remember diagramming sentences? (Or am I just old?) The reason we learn grammar is to understand how the English language is structured, and therefore how to use it. If you were to build a house, the first thing you would learn how to do is learn how houses were built. The foundations. The materials. Which walls are load-bearing and why. Etc. It’s the same thing when it comes to writing novels.
There is an overall structure to a novel, but there is also structure at a sentence level. For example:
The man was tall, lean, and weathered, as though he had been laid out in the desert sun to be cured like leather. I knew that seamed and craggy face. It was my father.
“Hello, boy,” he said.
I turned around. A man stood at the entrance to the saloon. My heart sank; it was my father.
Placing dialogue before description or description before dialogue is a structural choice. Each says something about the character. Prose is made up choices like these. Just because prose doesn’t adhere as strongly to the rules of meter and rhyme as poetry does doesn’t mean it doesn’t have rules unto itself.
There you have it! If Voice is about style, then Prose must necessarily be about clarity. Next time we’ll discuss COMMERCIAL VS. LITERARY!