Don’t Let Bad Prose Sink Your Story

gustav_wertheimer_-_der_schiffbruch_der_agrippina

No matter how great your plot is, bad prose will sink it, fast.

Good writing must have both a solid structure (plot, pacing, etc.) as well as solid. Now what we’ve nailed down some of the biggest structural problems with opening chapters, let’s take a look at the actual prose.

What are the elements of good prose?

There are plenty of philosophies and rules about how to write the best prose. Prose is the voice of your story, the pallette the author uses to paint the story. Good prose enhances and reflects the plot but never overwhelms it.

Good prose is invisible.

Imagine going to the cinema and trying to watch a movie while the projector clicks incessantly in the background. Good prose never draws attention to itself. It tells the story without interfering.

Good Prose is simple and straightforward

Good prose must communicate an idea effectively. The most effective communication is the most simple. Good writing must always strive for the cleanest version, the simpliest representation. Otherwise the experience will feel false, and the reader will lose interest.

Mistake: Busy prose/Flowery prose

There’s no need to overwrite. While this might be a symptom of a NaNoWriMo draft, there is no prize for putting in extra words that add nothing to the sentence. Keep it simple.

Example: The ambrosia of warming fragrances received me as I opened the door to the bakery.

Ask: Would a normal person say this in real life?

What are you really trying to say? “The place smelled like fresh-baked cookies” is a perfectly good line, and it isn’t going to elicit eye-rolling from your editor.

Overwriting is an easy trap to fall into. We are writers we want to create something beautiful, but the art comes in the selective use of color, the mastery of walking between what is there and what isn’t. Embrace the negative space. Keep your message clear and simple. This is key to effective communication.

Mistake: Restating what you have already said.

Example: I winced; heat rose to my face. I suddenly felt very awkward.

Here the author shows us that the character is embarrassed, and then she translates the action and spoon feeds it to the reader. Trust your readers to understand typical body language. “I winced; heat rose to my face” works on its own. Don’t retell the story. This is like watching a movie with someone who has already seen it, and after every important part he asks,” Did you see that?”

Mistake: Voice doesn’t match time period

Example: She found his company most vexing. Vs. He was asking to get bitch-slapped. 

Both examples give the same information, but one of them sounds contemporary and the other sounds like it was written 200 years ago. Make sure your prose matches your time period, and if you are writing a historical, a little flavor is plenty.

Mistake: Using contemporary concepts/ideas in a historical setting

Example: The sword hummed with electricity

This mistake is so common I even see it slip through in published novels. We all remember the Orc shouting about meat being “back on the menu.” (Not sure how many cafés there are in Mordor.) Putting words or ideas into a character’s voice that don’t exist in their world, makes the experience feel false.

Fix: This sword hummed with a quiet power that raised the hairs on the back of my hand.

If this were a contemporary, we could easily say “electricity” but in this instance writing out the sensation of electricity allows the character to accurately relate the experience using words and concepts that are familiar to a medieval setting.

Plot structure, tension, and characterization are nothing without solidly written prose to carry them. As you edit your work, keeping an eye out for these common mistakes will help make your prose more effective at vanishing on that page and letting your story come through.

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