Have you ever had the feeling someone was watching you? You know that weird sensation that creeps up the back of your neck and makes you turn your head to search out the culprit? That happened to me one day while I was at my desk.
My spine tingled and I slowly turned my head to the window beside me to see two beady eyes staring at me, 15 inches from my face. Those eyes were attached to a peacock.
He turned and strutted forward through the alley and was followed by a train of peacocks and peahens. I stepped outside and watched them strut through the neighborhood around the corner and over the back berm in a colorful parade. Occasionally, they would return and meander along the same path. Such pride and confidence exuded from them, I felt like a commoner along the procession route of a royal caravan, gawking at the splendor of true beauty.
Well written prose often leaves me feeling the same way– in awe of the author as they strut across the page in phrases as colorful as a peacock’s quill and words so flowery and exquisite that tears sprinkle. But how do we, as novelists, get out of the way and let the story shine through without our pride parading through the pages like proud peacocks? A difficult task, but if we can master the art of prosaic storytelling, then we might actually have a reason to strut.
Here are some tips to fill out our tail feathers and help us become the “Cock of the Walk” in prose.
Quill 1: BE CLEAR
The best prose is constructed in a way that is easy to follow. The meaning is clear and the words don’t distract from the message. Roz Morris says it this way. “Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.”
Murky example: Washing her mane, the rain barrel water became clouded spilling it over onto the pernicious puddles of printed mud and squishing between his appendages.
Say what? Who washed whose hair where and why do we care about mud squishing? The murky example has unmatched phrases and modifiers. We get the idea of the picture the writer was trying to create, but since it is so poorly constructed and the word choices are sketchy, it leaves us confused and frustrated.
Pristine example: Jose scooped a bucket of water from the rain barrel and poured it over Lisa’s head. Rivulets cascaded down her shapely back, dripping into the cloudy water and splashing over the edges of the wooden slats to the muddy red dirt…
All of the phrases have proper modifiers and it is clear to the reader who is doing what and where. It makes us curious and leads us forward into the story. We don’t get tripped up by the word choices and we know this is about two people in a specific place and time, doing a specific action. Even better, we want to know more about Jose and Lisa’s relationship. The writer led us down a path, stimulated our curiosity and encouraged us to turn the corner to see what comes next.
Clarity in writing is our first quill.
Quill 2: HIDE YOUR RESEARCH
Even the most experienced writers have a tendency to show off their hours of research. Unless you are writing a term paper for a college professor or a professional journal, we really don’t want to see facts spilled out on the page. It becomes preachy and disrupts the flow of the story. I know you put in hours and hours of research for a single sentence sometimes, but it’s better if we aren’t made aware of it. Don’t make your reader think, “Ooooh, this guy is a great researcher.” Keep the reader engrossed in the story.
Preachy example: Kim earned her nursing degree, that took her two years at a fully accredited school before she could take her NCLEX test for state licensure, so she knew exactly what symptoms of the diagnostic code for Undifferentiated Schizophrenia were present in her step-father.
Really? Is that what you want us to take out of this story?
“Aliens?” Kim clarified.
“Yes, they’re running through the back door with pink umbrellas!” Her stepfather’s eyes bulged and he pointed with one hand and protected his face with the other.
Kim whirled around, there was nothing coming through the back door. She slowly turned back to face her stepfather and chills crawled up her spine. He was hallucinating! Years of nursing school lectures kicked in and she was overwhelmed with a sense of dread. Dad was schizophrenic!
Details add flavor to the story, but too many unnecessary facts will lull your readers to sleep or give them unexplainable urges to fling your book across the room.
Quill 3: KEEP THE BEAT
Words have not only rhyme, but rhythm. Listen to the pace your words are setting. Are you creating an intense scene? Your pacing should be quick and the rhythm choppy. Do you want to pull the reader into a melancholy mood? Long pensive sentences that evoke emotion are needed.
Tosca Lee is genius in this excerpt from Havah. Take note of the rhythm and movement of the words and how they evoke a certain feeling.
“A bird trilled. Near my ear: the percussive buzz of an insect. Overhead, tree boughs stirred in the warming air. I lay on a soft bed of herbs and grass that tickled my cheek, my shoulders, and the arch of my foot, whispering sibilant secrets up to the trees. From here I felt the thrum of the sap in the stem—the pulsing veins of the vine, the beat of my heart in harmony with hundreds more around me, the movement of the earth a thousand miles beneath. I sighed as one returning to sleep, to retreat to the place I had been before, the realm of silence and bliss—wherever that is.”
Lee, Tosca (2010-07-16). Havah (p. 3). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Could you sense the pulse of the words? She has used the feel and cadence of words to create an ethereal sensation of birth into a new world.
Now, in contrast read this example. Try to spot the mood that the author, Heather Burch creates in Halflings.
“Exhaustion squeezed each muscle, depriving them of strength. Likewise, it pushed at her consciousness, promising failure. When she thought her lungs might literally burst, a momentary, blinding flash of light sparked above her, as if the universe were snapping a picture of her dilemma. Within seconds of the spark of light, a sound descended.”
Burch, Heather (2012-01-31). Halflings (Kindle Locations 47-50). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Quick paced, choppy consonants, we are running along with the character.
Now read this excerpt and see if you can spot the problems with rhythm.
“I needed to keep running away! Trying to escape from the weapon wielding intruder was difficult at best, heaviness settled around me drifting down on the backs of wafting snowflakes, tiredness overcame my senses and weary muscles strained to carry my body away from the murderous assailant. How had this happened? My imagination surged trying to make some semblance of reason as I continued forward in my hasty and unsighted escape to freedom’s beckoning voice.”
In this paragraph we understand the character is running away from a murderer, but we don’t get any urgency from the sentence structure and word choices. There is almost a sauntering feeling to the words.
Compare to this account:
“Run! Move those feet! The murderer lunged closer, his knife scraped my leg. I leaped away and tore through the snow covered parking lot. Tired, exhausted, I forced my legs to move. The murderer chased. Why me? Why did he choose to come after me? I dashed into the ally, bounded over a fallen trash bin, and streaked toward freedom.”
We are carried away with the character, immediately immersed in her panicked retreat. Instead of gathering facts, we feel the urgency.
Listen to the rhythm of your words and use them to create emotion, atmosphere, and moods in your prose.
Keep these three quills safely tucked into your collection of ideas and knowledge. When the time is right, pull them out, dip them into the ink well of your muse and write better prose. Before long we will have a train of Prosaic Peacocks to strut around the publishing world.
What Quills can you share with us to help improve our prose?
Images from Word clip art.