This is Part 3 of a series of posts I’m doing about building skill in descriptive narrative prose and language use. In this installment I dig down into some theory and practice (my own personal theory and practice, anyway). Click here for Part 1. Or click here for Part 2.
With Passion: Words to Build Worlds
I’ve always been a lover of words. (That’s common among writers, of course.) I think of words in connotation, in shades of meaning. For me, there are no precise synonyms, only imperfect ones, words that are almost-but-not-quite the same. I love learning interesting new words, and I encourage any and every writer to be an avid word-hoarder.
When I’m writing, I often have a tab or two open to an online thesaurus, searching for the exact right word — the one on the tip of my mind that I can’t quite put a neural finger on. Recently I got up to about twelve thesaurus tabs at once, which is a record for me. What I’m trying to say is, if you want to build a good product, know your materials and tools, and use the right ones for the job. Words are your tools, your building blocks, but words are also living things, and you should choose them, and use them, with care.
You also need to pay attention to where your words fall in the sentence, of course. In the case of the Day of the Twelve Tabs, I discovered that rearranging the sentence was the solution, and when I did the word I’d wanted to use finally fit. Taking the care to choose the right words, in the right places, with the right punctuation, can make all the difference. I know that sounds kind of fundamental, even vague, but bear with me here. Because I think — or rather, I feel, and have virtually no expertise to back this up — that there are three levels or “layers” of prose composition, or of prose revision anyway, and it’s the second two layers where you should focus your passion.
Many experienced authors will advise you to do one prose-focused revision pass on any given piece of writing, usually as a third or fourth draft revision after you’ve addressed any larger-scale problems with the story. This is good advice. I don’t follow it strictly, because I can’t resist the urge to revise as I go. If you can resist that urge, then I recommend saving all your prose polish for last, or close to last, so that you don’t spend time polishing a part of the story that you’ll later have to cut, change, or rearrange.
When you’re doing your prose polish — assuming you do one; if you don’t, because your words come out perfect the first time, what are you doing reading this? Go win a Pulitzer or something — you’ll be working in three distinct “layers” of prose. (Or that’s how I see it anyway.) Different sentences will need attention in different layers. Some sentences may even need attention on two, or even all three layers. The top layer of prose revision isn’t much more than aggressive copyediting: cleaning up sentences and punctuation, fixing grammar, and reinforcing clarity on the most basic level, using the everyday rules of the English language as your tools.
Keep in mind, grammar rules exist to serve clarity, not some arbitrary standard. For instance, no matter what anyone tells you, there is nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive. “To boldly go where no one has gone before” sounds more natural than “To go boldly…” and loses nothing in clarity. And for those who think it’s never okay to end a sentence with a preposition, well, that’s the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!
The second layer of prose revision is where clarity meets style, where function meets form, and you break out your writer’s toolbox: varying sentence lengths to aid pacing and story rhythm, fixing weak or awkward constructions, cutting back on adverbs (“walked angrily” becomes “stalked” or “stomped”), eliminating filtering (“He saw a ghost appear in front of him” becomes “A ghost appeared in front of him”); strengthening your prose.
The third layer is where you ask yourself: How could I construct this differently, to use words and rhythm to better effect, to make a stronger impression in the reader’s mind? How can I say this better? It may be a matter of changing a single word, or a whole paragraph — or nothing at all. Often, I’ll dig down to this third layer when I see problems in the top two layers, because making improvements here, in addition to being an end in itself, can solve a lot of problems in the layers above. This is the layer that this blog post is all about. This is where your inner poet and inner word-lover go to work.
A few pitfalls to avoid: don’t use bigger or more obscure words just because you can, and don’t overelaborate or purple your prose. Make the words and punctuation serve the story. Like the title of Part 2 said: you still need to think like a storyteller, and not let your poetic diction overwhelm your story’s direction. Words are tools; sure they’re the tools you use to paint a picture, but they’re still tools, just like a brush and palette. Most importantly, don’t forget to bring your upper-layer tools down the mineshaft with you. You don’t want your work in Layer Three to destabilize the layers above, or they’ll collapse and your carefully excavated prose will end up buried under a mountain of passive voice and dangling modifiers.
I’ll use a small example, from my earlier twelve-tab anecdote. I started with “brief and intense,” which is a bit of a stock phrase, and “intense” just wasn’t quite the word I was looking for. Twelve tabs later I settled on “vivid.” “Brief and vivid” didn’t scan quite right; “brief but vivid” did, but there was still something missing. How about “brief but vivid in the moonlight”? And that’s what I went with. Maybe that doesn’t strike your fancy, maybe it sounds like total trash to your literary ear, but I like it.
And that wraps up the 3rd and final installment of Practicing Poetic Prose with Passion. I don’t have any specific exercises for this final section, other than grab a piece of your fiction and dig into that third layer of prose. If you like, you can go back and apply the third layer concept and careful word choice to the exercises from Part 1 or Part 2. If you do, let me know how it goes, if those exercises feel different after what you read here in Part 3.
Be well, and keep writing.