Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Pros (and Cons) of Prose

Style matters. It's one of the first tenets you'll find in pretty much any book on professional writing. Lately, I've been finding myself comparing and analyzing the writing styles of authors I enjoy. Part of it has to do with trying to pin down my own natural style which is in a near constant state of flux, and the other part has to do with simple curiosity. How do published, successful authors do what they do, and so well?

It seems there's a versatility in fiction, as in music and art, that encourages new and varying styles of writing. This benefits the reader who will have lots to choose from, but can baffle the writer who's trying to figure out what works and identify their place in the literary universe.

I'll give you an example of what I mean.

I'm currently in the process of reading Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. It's a genre buster, involving romance and fantasy and history, all wrapped into a nice, little package. Or not so little, considering it's roughly 850 pages long (considering the version you buy). It's chock full of description -- from the changing locations to the characters, even minor ones, nothing escapes the detailed treatment.
I swung down the road that afternoon toward the village to fetch Frank from the vicarage. I happily breathed in the heady Highland mix of heather, sage, and broom, spiced here and there with chimney smoke and the tang of fried herring, as I passed the scattered cottages. The village lay nestled in a small declivity at the foot of one of those soaring crags that rise so steeply from the Highland moors. Those cottages near the road were nice. The bloom of postwar prosperity spread as far as a new coat of paint, and even the manse, which must be at least a hundred years old, sported bright yellow trim around its sagging windowframes. - Outlander, page 28
Beautiful prose, no? And it's consistently awe-inspiring throughout the novel, too. If there was ever a book to teach how to describe people and places in fiction, I would definitely recommend this one.

And in the other corner . . . I just finished reading Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. It's a Young Adult romance with genuine charm and humor. Honestly I could sing praises up and down for it. As expected, its written more simply than Outlander, but manages to highlight important details just the same.
He shakes his head, a little dazed. The first thing I notice is his hair -- it's the first thing I notice about everyone. It's dark brown and messy and somehow both long and short at the same time. I think of the Beatles, since I've just seen them in Meredith's room. It's artist hair. Musician hair. I-pretend-I-don't-care-but-I-really-do hair.
Beautiful hair.
[. . .]
The beautiful boy gives an amused grin. His teeth are lovely-straight on top, crooked on the bottom, with a touch of overbite. I'm a sucker for smiles like this, due to my own lack of orthodontia. I have a gap between my front teeth the size of a raisin. - Anna and the French Kiss, pages 15/16
Both books are well-written, without a doubt. They both have their strengths, as well as their weaknesses. My point is, they both have such different styles. Of course, they're in different genres and age ranges, but the fact is both succeed at what they're setting out to do. Entertain.

I adore the English language, so my style tends to shy towards arguably excessive description, usually with a large focus on character introspection, and it's always made me curious whether people care for all of that or if they're secretly skimming to the dialogue.

Orrrr, maybe I'm just paranoid. *shifty eyes*

Inquiring minds would like to know, dear readers! What sort of style of writing do you prefer to read? What kind do you like to write? Are there certain circumstances in which a simpler approach to prose is better?


  1. If I'm reading fiction I hate first person as you only get one person's perspective. I don't like too much description, keep it simple. I like knowing what the characters are thinking, that is readings great advantage over watching something. Other than that I can't say specifically what style I prefer, I just know what I like.

  2. @Chris - Mom's the same way, haha. Personally, I don't mind first person if it's done well. It seems much of what I've been reading lately has been in first person, and to great effect! Some of my favorite books have also been written in first person, which is probably why I feel neutral about it.

    But I completely know what you mean; it definitely has its downsides, and can be hard to pull off. I myself prefer to write in third person for the very reason you mentioned -- I enjoy exploring multiple characters' experiences from their own head. =)

  3. Heyy, I just came across your blog from Let the Words Flow :)

    I love poetic prose. Anything with vivid imagery is a must; and more importantly, these images and descriptions have to speak. I like words that have shape and musicality, and that illuminate or propel the story without slowing down. Something sharp yet concise. Tanith Lee is one of my favourite prose stylists (I have a post on her in a book review on my blog) and I've always loved how she could paint vivid pictures in few words, as well as the sense of grandeur and fantasy through her sometimes archaic prose.

    I do have flowery prose myself, so lately I've been trying to trim it down. I think most people would prefer something concise as opposed to elaborate.

    Btw, "pros" and "prose" - I'm digging the pun!

  4. Maybelle - Howdy! Happy you were able to find me! ^^

    I couldn't agree with you more on poetic prose; the English language can be absolutely breathtaking when utilized to its full effect. I'm always delighted to find sentences and descriptions that are uncommon, but beautiful in design and diction. I think that sort of originality is the key difference between prose that sings, and prose that simply falls flat.

    You have another point in how it has to fit the style, lest it bog the story down. That's probably the biggest challenge I face -- finding that balance between what needs to be written, and what's simply superfluous to the story and setting. Sometimes I get a little word happy. xD

    And I don't think I've heard of Tanith Lee, but I'll definitely be sure to check her out!

  5. Ooh yes! Some of her books are actually pretty mediocre, so start with Biting the Sun, The Silver Metal Lover, and Night's Master. Those are some of her best works.
    "Beautiful in design and diction" - I like the sound of that too!