megwrites: Shakespeared! Don't be afraid to talk Elizabethan, or Kimberlian, or Meredithian! (shakespeared!)
[personal profile] megwrites
Don't worry, I still do that writing thing, too.

I've been thinking a lot about prose-level mechanics and how they affect whether a story comes across vividly to a reader.

For instance, you can describe a scene in which a character gets her keys, opens a door and walks through it - but you can show that in several different ways.

Finding her keys after searching her purse for them them, she unlocked the door and went through.


She fumbled for her keys and found them in her purse. She unlocked the door and went through it.


She went through the door after searching for her keys in her purse to unlock it.

Each sentence describes the same sequence of events, but they're different. They feel different to me. They feel like they have a different sense of speed and rhythym and timing, as though some are closer to the present than others even though they're all, technically, in past tense.

The first sentence feels like we're sort of rewinding and getting a quick "last time on..." sort of summary, the second one feels like it is happening right this second, and the third feels in between the other two as far as timing, but it doesn't feel as immediate.

That's what I'm trying to get at. In my own work, I find that there is a need to balance immediacy with summary. One thing I get frustrated with while reading is when a writer describes every little action in the immediate, especially if it's in first person narration.

Because to me, first person narration should feel as if you sat the character down in a room with a tape recorder and asked them to tell you a really great story. But when people tell stories in that fashion, they leave out a lot of the little stuff.

For instance, "I went through the door and then stepped into the room. I took off my coat and turned around and put it on the coat rack that was by the door. Then I turned around again and walked across the room and sat in a chair." Because I think in a more natural sense that would read as, "I came in, shucked my coat off, and plopped down in a chair."

So sometimes you need that summary feeling prose.

Other times you need that very immediate prose. Because saying "so we kicked and hit and then I won the fight" isn't as vivid as describing the pain of getting kicked in the teeth or trading blows.

So lately I've been wondering about how writers find that balance, and if it's something that other people notice. Because the more I read, the more I notice that the same plots, hell, the same stories can be told in different ways on a prose-level and it will definitely affect my enjoyment.

I'm also wondering if the differences between closely related genres comes down to things as simple as prose. I saw a documentary on IFC about sex in the movies and there was a director who said, "The difference between a movie with sex in it and pornography is lighting and production values."

And that struck me as being a very wise statement, and one a writer can apply to their work.

I often wonder if the difference between books being put in one category or another comes down not to the plot or the settings or the characters - but the prose. I think of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveller's Wife. On it's face, it's SF/F, but it has been regarded and treated in a very literary manner. And I wonder if it really does come down to the fact that it reads like a literary genre novel not an SF/F novel.

I also wonder if when people speak of a novel being a "difficult" or "easy" read, are they really talking about a difficult plot or are they speaking about prose that confuses or bores or moves the story around like a car with bad shocks? Is the difference between a book that people breeze through and a book that stumps them just in the way sentences are constructed?

I'm interested to hear what people have to say about this. What do they think some of the prose-level characteristics of genres are, if they think it really is just the difference in lighting and production values that separates one genre from another.

Date: 2010-02-17 06:21 pm (UTC)
ext_402500: (Default)
From: [identity profile]
Prose-level mechanics are important. I'm a believer in the old saying, "There aren't really any new stories." Any story you write has been done before, so it's all in the execution. The word choices you make, and your ability to judge whether a scene calls for a leisurely, descriptive pace when describing character actions or whether it needs immediacy and brevity, is one of the things that will mark your skill as a writer and make your story interesting and readable.

However, prose-level mechanics aren't everything. The Time Traveller's Wife reads more like a "literary" novel than SF not so much because of the style of prose (plenty of SF/fantasy authors write in a "literary" style that would be recognized as such if their stories weren't about spaceships or dragons), but because the story isn't really SF. Time travel in Niffenegger's novel is just a MacGuffin. The story is about Henry's relationship with Clare, with time travel being the plot device that allows Niffenegger to tell the story in a non-linear fashion, and otherwise being quite incidental to the plot. The literary critics and readers who loved The Time Traveller's Wife would judge it very differently if Niffenegger had thrown in, say, a sub-plot with other time travelers, or scientists trying to figure out how Henry's ability works, etc.

Date: 2010-02-17 07:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The more I write, and the more I read, the more I get sensitive to prose. And I think there are two things that need to be balanced: One, a lot of readers ignore prose and a lot of readers want transparent prose, or (insert popular thriller writer here) wouldn't sell as well as he does. And two, even for readers who ignore prose, even for readers who want transparent prose, getting the sequencing of action right, getting the details right, getting the rhythm right, and especially knowing what to leave in and what to leave out, can have a tremendous effect even at a subconscious level.

It's about having a believable and interesting voice. I say that as a YA writer, and I know "voice" is such a huge buzzword in YA, but if I don't get the sense that there's a real human being in there somewhere, I don't care about how compelling the plot is. And if I have a good sense of the character's voice -- that's the basis for what feels intuitively right in terms of plot and character and theme.

I think that literary fiction needs to have prose that works harder. If it's an adventure story, a thriller, lots of fantasy and science fiction, then your themes and motifs and character arcs are going to come through mostly through the events of the plot. In literary fiction, often that doesn't happen, and you can have very intense character moments going on that are hinted at in subtext, and that can easily get either too obvious or too subtle unless the prose is working very hard.

Robert Olen Butler's "From Where You Dream" is not a book I wholeheartedly recommend -- in particular, he's pretty contemptuous of genre fiction, and I suspect you'd find it in large part pretentious and overdone -- but that's the book that sort of kicked me in the teeth in terms of thinking hard about what you can do with prose alone. And also John Garner's books on writing fiction, though those are perhaps even more pretentious.

Date: 2010-02-18 12:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
One more thing about summary vs. immediacy.

Here are two alternatives to your sentences above:

#1 : Running at full speed, she managed to get to her door while her pursuer was still two flights of stairs back. She groped inside her handbag, shoving her way past two lipsticks, an old playbill, a flier for a charity she'd been meaning to donate to. She patted down her coat pockets, then her jean pockets. They couldn't have slipped out in the cab, could they? She shoved her hand into her pocket again and closed her fingers on the grim-reaper keychain. She muttered a quick prayer, shoved the key in the lock, and slid into her apartment just as she heard boots stomping up the stairs.

In other words: If you're going to take full advantage of immediacy and immersion, make it interesting. Make it scary or funny or dramatic in some way. And then, you get an opportunity to slip in some characterization in a way that's not boring or irrelevant.

#2 : She was changing into dry socks when the phone rang.

In other words: there are a lot of times when you can let your readers assume that your characters can get out of bed, shower, eat breakfast, lock and unlock their doors, etc., without too many problems, and skip ahead to the next important incident.

I think this is probably something I had to learn from mainstream fiction, because with science fiction you often want to take every opportunity for worldbuilding: Here's how you shower, in space! Here's what you eat for breakfast, in space! And it is interesting, or people assume it is interesting, because it gives insight into the society and it's not how we do it in the here and now. But if I'm going to describe breakfast, in space!, maybe at the same time the protagonist's teenage daughters are fighting about the girl the younger one wants to take to Space Prom. Or something. If I need to worldbuild I want to squeeze in some character drama or some plot drama while I'm doing it.

Date: 2010-02-18 11:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
For me a lot of this simply comes down to trying (I can't always say I'm successful) to make the prose do more than one thing. Each sentence should ideally imply something beyond the action (at least most of the time...if you did it with every single sentence that could come off as burdening the text, or simply contrived.) As in...

It took her three tries to get the key in the lock.

Nervous much?


It took her three minutes to bring herself to put the key in the lock.

What's on the other side of the door?

As for me, a "difficult" or "easy" read comes with no judgment of quality...much of the time. I might enjoy something difficult as a challenge, or easy as something light to pass the time. It may be that the difficulty is in figuring out a mystery, or the easy is because the text is "transparent window" as Asimov once put it.

But if it's easy because the text is repetitively bare-bones but not in a good way, or difficult because the author is trying to hard to write "beautiful" prose that doesn't serve the story, then I won't care much for either.

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags