This is Part 1 of a series of posts I’m doing about building skill in descriptive narrative prose and language use. This installment provides a basic introduction and some warm-up exercises.
Recently a friend from my writing group, the very talented z.m. quỳnh, complimented my use of language and description in fiction and asked me about my process, how I write on the prose level. I babbled incoherently for a few minutes and didn’t really say anything helpful, but since then I’ve thought some more about how I got to this point with my writing, specifically my language use and narrative prose. I’m no expert, but I decided to post my thoughts here, to hopefully provide a better answer to z.m.’s question, and for anyone else who’s interested. (I don’t know, maybe the rest of you think my language use totes sux.)
Keep in mind that what I have to say here isn’t likely to help anyone improve the CLARITY of their prose. I won’t be talking much about the basics of prose writing. That’s a subject that could easily take up a whole blog post by itself, and in fact has filled entire books. What you’ll find here are some very broad guidelines — let’s say, ideas — for how you might proceed if you want to improve the language in your writing, based on my own limited personal experience.
Practicing: Word Harder
The creative writing department at the college I attended had a pretty strong literary bent, which generally puts an emphasis on style over structure. Outside of critiquing each other’s stories — and one (excellent) course on playwriting and screenwriting — we didn’t delve very deep into how to tell a story. The reading and resulting discussion we did basically ended up being the same kind of literary criticism you’d do in a standard literature course. (Considering the plethora of literature courses I had to take to complete my BA in Creative Writing, many totally unrelated to the type of writing I wanted to pursue, I felt and still feel that additional literary criticism in my creative writing classes was a huge waste of time.) So, lacking the guidance of anyone like Nancy Kress (and oh, man, do I wish her book Beginnings, Middles, and Ends had been part of the curriculum!) I basically spent four years polishing my prose. (It still sucked by the time I graduated, but it sucked LESS.)
So, to unpack that a little bit: improve your prose through practice. This might seem like part and parcel of the old advice to simply write more. And to a certain extent it is. But, if you practice some of the things I’m going to talk about in this and following installments, maybe you can help hone your prose specifically as you continue to improve your writing generally. (Results may vary. Improvement not guaranteed. Void where prohibited. Side effects may include synecdoche, metonymy, and imagery. Consult your Muse before use.)
Since we’re talking about practice (well, I am anyway (actually I’m not talk at all, I’m just typing) but if you’re talking, I’m afraid I can’t hear you) let’s start with… *drum roll* … some practice! Just a couple of exercises to get into the right frame of mind.
I’ll give you a sentence of description, and you go ahead and rewrite it to make it more evocative:
The sun shone down on the parking lot.
Okay, that’s a pretty bland sentence. No way you can screw this one up. Try rewriting it a few times in different ways. Expand on it, if you feel the need — there’s only so much you can do with that one sentence. Experiment with tone. Is this story a comedy, a drama, a love story? A horror story, the sunny day at odds with an inescapable sense of foreboding? Obviously experimenting with tone could be an exercise all on its own, but here we can use it to give you some different “sentence environments” for playing with language. Different words and expressions lend themselves to different tones, and vice-versa.
Let’s try a bit of a longer segment that will give you more to work with:
Althea picked out an apple from the basket on the counter. She held it in her hand, staring at it. She inspected every detail of the apple’s skin, under its waxy coating.
Also fairly bland, but clear. You could easily elaborate about what details Althea notices on the apple’s skin; hint at why she’s staring at an apple in the first place; add some subtext to indicate her mood or state of mind; make the apple a reflection of that state of mind. Doing any number of these things, while useful practice by themselves, will also give you room to experiment with language, rhythm, and sentence structure.
Try some sentences and scenes of your own devising. If you like, you can come back to these exercises, or make some more of your own, after you’ve read the other sections of this extended essay thingamajig.
That’s it for Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2 – Poetic Prose: Think like a Storyteller, Write like a Poet.