Can you believe this is the last part of our Creative Writing Element series? I’ve learned a tremendous amount of information from writing these articles and had so much fun in the process. I hope that you have enjoyed them well!
The next post in this series will be a recap of everything we’ve discussed so far, so please check it out for a refresher.
What is Prose?
I’ve saved this topic for last because prose is the key to combining everything we’ve learned so far into a readable, relatable story. Prose is “the ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure, as distinguished from poetry or verse,” (Dictionary.com). You might recognize your favorite authors via their use of prose. Suzanne Collins writes very differently from James Dashner. Stephen King writes very differently from Nicholas Sparks. Edgar Allan Poe is nothing like Ernest Hemingway, and so on and so forth.
Each writer has their own unique voice, and prose is the microphone through which that voice is projected. Generally, good prose can be summed up by its adherence to seven rules:
- Good use of adjectives and adverbs
- Avoidance of weak writing techniques
- Concise Sentences
- Writing in the Positive
- Concrete Descriptions
- Strong Structure
Each of these rules helps to construct a powerful, memorable style of writing that lasts a lifetime in reader’s minds. Let’s jump right in!
Good Use of Adjectives and Adverbs
This is a rule I break all the time. Adverbs, unfortunately, have become my personal writing crutch and this is a challenge I am trying to overcome.
An adverb is “any member of a class of words that function as modifiers of verbs or clauses, and in some languages, as Latin and English, as modifiers of adjectives, other adverbs, or adverbial phrases,” (Dictionary.com). Adverbs used in narrative writing often end with –ly, such as beautifully, quickly, lethargically or deftly. Overuse of these words can muck up your writing and add unnecessary length to sentences.
An adjective is “any member of a class of words that modify nouns and pronouns, primarily by describing a particular quality of the word they are modifying,” (Dictionary.com). Excessive adjective use might look something like this:
The yellow dandelion danced blithely in the crisp, cool autumn breeze. The short girl with the fire-red hair leaned down and cautiously plucked the flower from the chilled pre-winter ground. She wanted to preserve it as a remembrance of the colorful autumn evening, always to be displayed in a wooden picture frame upon her clean countertops.
Sure,it’s descriptive, but it’s also boring. Here’s how to cut it down to be more succinct:
The dandelion danced in the autumn wind until a stout, auburn-haired girl uprooted it. She loved preserving flowers and looked forward to displaying the beauty framed on her countertop for months to come.
There we go! This paragraph conveys the same meaning with much more precision.
Avoidance of Weak Writing Techniques
There are two main ways authors weaken their prose: passive voice and weak qualifying words. Passive voice is where something is done to the subject, rather than the subject doing something.
An example of passive voice is:
The tree fell when Sam kicked it with his foot.
Here is the same idea written in active voice:
Sam kicked the tree over with his foot.
Avoiding passive voice makes writing more direct. Readers engage in the action clearly and understand proceedings more clearly.
Qualifying words are words such as extremely, little, really and very. They are not necessary for sentences and thus should be eliminated.
A simple, compact sentence gets the point across just as well as run-on ones do, if not better. Take your sentences from:
“Lilly learned that the best way to ride a horse was with your heels down, head up and elbows in close.”
“Lilly’s teacher instructed her to keep her heels down, head up and elbow’s in close.”
Writing in the Positive
The difference between positive and negative writing is best described by example.
Negative: Ana really didn’t like Will.
Positive: Ana abhorred Will.
Simply put, to write positively just say what you mean. If one character hates another, don’t beat around it, say it. If someone loves someone, say it. The sentence doesn’t have to be happy-positive; it just has to be concrete.
Negative: James didn’t seem to understand his importance to Marika – she couldn’t live without him in her life.
Positive: James was oblivious to Marika’s love for him.
Have you ever read a book that uses extremely vague descriptions? I have, and it gets boring. The reader bogs down without the lack of suggested visuals. Wouldn’t it be better to say the house is a “quaint cottage” or an “elaborate mansion”? Or to say that the “new car” is a Jaguar or a Porsche? The answer is yes, it would. The ornate mansion looked like it belonged in a fairy tale. There – now we know exactly what it looked like.
Concisely, be specific with your descriptors, but not excessive. In the table below you’ll find examples of both vague and concrete descriptions.
|Vague||The castle looked as if it were straight from a storybook.||The new car was the fastest he’d ever driven.||The bedroom was lavish.||The horse stood, statuesque in the moonlight.|
|Concrete||The castle looked as if it were straight from a storybook. Baroque architecture, spiraling staircases, sprawling ballroom – it had it all.||John’s brand new Jaguar was faster than any car he’d ever driven. Flooring the pedal, he sped down the freeway, feeling the purr of the engine invigorate his heartbeat.||The bedroom is absolutely lavish. Sarah flounces onto the enormous, four-poster bed, admiring the ornate dressing table. A lovely gown lies draped across the carved chair, just far enough from the crackling fire not to catch flame.||The jet-black Friesian stood, statuesque in the moonlight. His lustrous mane draped past his chest and shook as he pawed the wet ground impatiently. Steam swirled from his nostrils with every powerful exhale. She’d never seen such a beautiful animal.|
There are two great ways to create strong structure: keep your words simple and your sentences solid. If you have to choose between “declared” and “said,” choose the latter. The word “strode” is more readable than the word “ambulated.”
Regarding strong sentence structure, it is generally better to say, “Sally arranged her glass to reflect the sunlight,” than “In order to reflect the sunlight, Sally moved her glass a quarter-inch to the right.”
Keep the words simple and the sentences solid. (Alliteration anyone? 🙂 )
Lastly, don’t let your writing get boring. Stale writing serves no purpose. It doesn’t captivate your reader or enthrall reviewers. You want to stun your audience – to rapture them, sucking them into your artificial world until they can barely put your book down.
How do you include decent variety? Give readers a variety of scenes and atmospheres to experience. Vary the mode of your characters and situations. Provide angry people in opposition of gentle ones. Slap some humor in between the most serious conversations. Have one chapter that’s 15 pages and one that’s 30. Change up your paragraph and sentence length. If you’ve narrated the past five pages, maybe it’s time for some dialogue. Here’s where you find your voice. Figure out how you love to write, clean up the prose and decorate your story with your own personal brand of variety.
Write clean prose, spice it up with variety and write the story you want to write. Moderate your use of adjectives and adverbs, avoid weak writing techniques, pen concise sentences and always write in the positive. Provide your readers with concrete descriptions nestled into strong sentence structure, peppered with enough variety to keep your reader engaged but not too much to distract them from the awesomeness that is your writing. Find your voice, write how you write and edit how you edit.
Please remember that these are only guidelines designed to help you along the way. Your writing is your story. Enjoy it, love it and give it the prose you believe it deserves.
Below are a few examples of unique prose by authors you might recognize:
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 – George Orwell
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
“The poor are very great people. They can teach us so many beautiful things.” – Mother Teresa
“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players. ” – “As You Like It” – Shakespeare
And some of the best dialogue:
5“Lord,” said Thomas, “we do not know where You are going, so how can we know the way?” 6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. John 14:6
I hope that you have enjoyed this post and learned more about how to structure your prose! If you have any favorite literary quotes, please put them in the comments below! I look forward to seeing them 🙂
All the best,
Literary Devices. “Prose – Examples and Definition of Prose.” Literary Devices. N.p., 2015. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.
Novel Writing Help. “Prose Writing 101 | Novel Writing Help.” Novel Writing Help. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.
Toadvine, April, Allen Brizee, and Elizabeth Angeli. “Welcome to the Purdue OWL.” Purdue OWL. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2016.