Prose Values Beyond The Senses

Dynamic prose has certain properties that can be infused into limp and pallid prose to give it strength, vigor, and color. For example, good prose has time woven into its tapestry:

She looked out over the barren, gray prairie where Chief Running Bear had met his death, and where the Seventh Cavalry had slaughtered a thousand squaws in a single day, and she was overcome with a profound sadness. Then someone said, "Soup's on, " and she turned and walked back across the sand-colored flagstones of the patio and through the sliding door into the dining room where dinner was being served. By the time she had buttered her sesame roll, the chief, the squaws, and the butchers of the Seventh Cavalry were forgotten.

Another powerful device is to filter your descriptions through viewpoint characters. You describe the scene, in other words, as a character sees it. Sometimes the character misinterprets what he sees:

Norman woke up in his sleeping bag, yawned, and looked over Yucca Flats. The soldiers he had hidden from the day before were gone and only the tower and the buildings remained. Now maybe I'll find out what they're up to, he thought . . .

Good prose is active, not static. A scene should be changing, or the perception of the scene should be changing. This is static:

The red barn stood behind the house. It hadn't been used in years. The paint was peeling, the door was off its hinges, the pig pens had fallen down.

That is a still life. The rewrite below shows how the description can be made dynamic:

The red barn stood behind the house, its shutters banging on rusted hinges against the sides of the barn. The paint, flaking off in the breeze, fell like rust-red snowflakes in the empty pig pens. The squeals of the thousands of pigs raised there echoed now . . .

The admonition not to be too much of a poet is ignored in the following passage:

Mildred was a small-boned woman with a skijump nose and small, almost mouse-like ears. She walked very erectly, and when she talked it brought to mind the snow sparrow of Tibet. Her voice tinkled rather than tittered, like the snow sparrow. But there the bird-like quality ended. She had feet like a water buffalo. Not the African, whose feet are long and pointed, but the Siamese water buffalo, whose foot is as wide as the cedar planking on the forecastle of a Hong Kong junk. Yes, Mildred was a mixture all right . . .

In summary: Your prose should have time, color, and textural density (detailed and specific rather than generalized); convey a sense of motion; and appeal to the seven senses—hearing, seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, the psychic sense, and a sense of humor.

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