Posts Tagged prose style
Never begin your story with weather. This we hear for many good reasons. For example, Joe Konrath, who is spitting bolts of lightning after judging a story competition.
So I started reading The Rapture by Liz Jensen, and she begins thus:
That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…’
It’s weather. Or is it? I rather liked it, so why does she get away with it?
1 It’s interesting
Weather is usually not interesting. Most of the time in real life, weather is a conversational gambit used by those who wish they had something better to talk about. It’s throat clearing. It’s asking for permission for a conversation. It’s perhaps a plea for the other person to think of something less dull to talk about. In writing, it’s often a hesitant moment as the writer wonders exactly how to introduce everything. ‘Er, there was a blue sky…’
But here, Liz Jensen has made extraordinary weather. It’s hardly even weather, in fact – it’s a dangerous setting, a war with the environment that makes living perilous. It skews the familiar – like that off-kilter opening from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
2 It’s about people
We’re more curious about people than we are about things. Which would you rather hear – a story about a chair or a story about the people whose attic it ended up in?
In The Rapture, Liz Jensen makes her opening paragraph about the people and how their lives have been changed. Where normality is disrupted, a story is bound to happen. (In fact, this excerpt has a double dose of people because it turns out to be first person – but that’s not apparent here.)
3 A storyteller is luring us in
Opening paragraphs aren’t just about the events. Like the opening bars of a song, they’re an introduction to the writer’s voice. Liz Jensen’s piece is assured, phrased with pizzaz, visualised with an eye for the interesting. It persuades you to lie back and be charmed.
The writing world is full of rules and taboos and it’s easy to take them too literally. Beginning a story with weather isn’t the problem. Neither is looking in a mirror, describing a character, waking up or getting dressed. The problem is failing to be interesting, failing to show us characters, failing to convey a state of unease or instability and failing to cast a spell over the reader.
Thanks for the pic Larry Johnson
What else makes a good beginning? Let’s discuss examples… especially if they involve some of the traditional taboos
My dance instructor is an editor in her more sensible hours, like me. She deals with precision, facts, boiling ideas down to their exactness. How things work and what they are. The world of the literal.
But when she wriggles inside a piece of music to choreograph a routine, she speaks a different language. One of moods, emotions and universal connection. Her style is jazz, a discipline that gathers moves from just about anywhere. Not just the formal steps of ballet, salsa, contemporary or hip-hop. It might be a woman in high heels walking across a room, a covetous glance with the head tilted just so. Simple moves, but when put with the music, they reveal more about it than you ever dreamed was there.
Writers have to do both these things. We construct the literal – who does what and when. What that leads to. Whether everything is logical and how many Tuesdays are in a month. We set up surprises.
It comes in two ways:
- how well we snare the reader in the experience – the moment-by-moment writing
- why it feels so much more important than ‘just a story’
For the first point, so much comes down to how we use our prose. The break of every paragraph, the glint of every verb, the run of every sentence, the open eyes of a word’s vowels or the quirky wink of a letter clash. Like the jazz choreographer, you don’t have to be fancy or formal – walking across a room is just as effective as a formal metaphor, often more so. You can charm the reader with every mark on the page.
Of course every genre has different expectations of its prose, and every individual writer has different sensitivities too. But all stories have a degree of performance and need to put on the right kind of show. When you’re doing a final polish, look beyond the steps and make the story dance.
Which leads me to the second way a story charms a reader. When they finish, the best stories somehow make sense as a metaphor in retrospect – for life, love, the human condition, whatever.
And here the dance comparison is of no use whatsoever.
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What do you do to make a story dance? Share in the comments
Last week I was interviewed by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, and one of the questions that attracted the most discussion is how to develop our use of language in our novels. It was the hardest question to answer in a short time, so I thought I’d give it more space here.
First of all, what is good language?
I see many writers who seem in thrall to their school English teachers, as if they are on a sponsored exercise to use the thesaurus as often as possible. We’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, and looks self-conscious and overdone – the dreaded purple prose.
But at least these writers have understood there’s an aesthetic involved. And I want to applaud them for trying to unpeel what’s in their hearts. Worse is the writer who goes for tortuous obfuscation (sorry), as if they want to scare the reader into feeling dumb. Just for a giggle, look at The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster, from an English professor:
‘If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’
Now that’s criticism (as far as I can tell), not fiction, but I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of superiority, not communication.
Tip 1: Be clear
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.
So before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. What do we want the reader to feel?
Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:
‘Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier
‘He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens
There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions; the effectiveness comes from the writer knowing first what he wants to say.
Tip 2: Develop an ear
Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but easy to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.
‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’
It’s not a bad concept but the writing is full of tripwires:
- ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
- ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
- ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ does it even matter if the flames are scanty, fat or orange (which he forgot to put but I didn’t mind)? And do we need to derail the reader by pointing out that life is hard for the lamps? Only if it adds to the experience, which this doesn’t.
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.
Tip 3: Suit the material
The language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen. For instance, thriller writers would like you to be gripped by a pacy beat.
More than that, the language operates other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you deeply to the narrator’s mind.
Both these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.
Tip 4: Using notebooks
In my interview with Joanna, we discussed how to develop our sense of language and an individual style, especially making notes as we read. One commenter afterwards said he used to feel self-conscious about what he wrote down, but now it’s part of his normal process of reading. Joanna says she’s got heaps of notebooks, which she doubts she’ll look at again. I don’t make physical notes but often find myself trapped by a marvellous phrase and reread it over and over, trying to decode the magic.
Thanks for the pic, StephenMitchell on flickr
How do you develop your literary ear? Do you keep notebooks? Do you ever look at them again? Does that matter? Share in the comments
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print (and Amazon have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
Today – roughly 24 hours ahead of schedule if you saw the note on the red blog – I’m at Joanna Penn’s online home, The Creative Penn. Joanna’s one of my favourite podcasters and her interviewees run the gamut of book marketing specialists to fiction authors to creativity consultants to anyone else you never knew you needed to know. A recent podcast of hers is on how to write fight scenes – which is cued up on my Creative Muvo to accompany my run today. (If you meet me, don’t get in my way.)
Earlier this year, when she was writing her best-selling religious thriller Pentecost, she interviewed me about my book Nail Your Novel. Now she’s invited me back to quiz me about writing My Memories of a Future Life – and we discuss the differences between literary and genre fiction, developing characters, using research and honing prose style. We also laughed rather a lot.