There are three commandments of dynamic prose. They are:
A. Be specific.
B. Appeal to all the senses.
The following is a nonspecific description, the kind we all write on the first draft:
When Mrs. Applegate arrived at the terminal, the train had already left. She paced back and forth on the platform, trying to figure out what to do. There were other stations down the line; perhaps she could make it to one of them in time to catch up with the train. She asked a cab driver. He shook his head. "No way," he said. "It can't be done. "
She paced some more. There had to be a way. She went back into the terminal and asked the conductor when the next train would be. Two hours, he said. She couldn't wait that long, she said.
She paced some more. Then suddenly she had an idea. What if she chartered a plane? Yes! She could make it if she chartered a plane.
The scene doesn't have a "specific" in it. Here's the same scene with specific details included. Watch how it becomes more alive:
When Beatrice Applegate arrived at the Reno Amtrak Terminal, she found the 5:15 for San
Francisco disappearing on the western horizon. She paced back and forth on the gray planks of the old platform, trying to think of what to do. Then it occurred to her that Verdi was only ten miles away and the 5:15 always stopped there for mail. She found a pencil-thin cab driver leaning against his battered old Plymouth reading a racing form. "A hundred dollars if you can get me to Verdi in fifteen minutes," she said, waving a bill in front of him.
The old cabbie thought it over, spit out a brown gob of tobacco, and said, "Can't be done," and went back to his racing form. Beatrice growled and went back to the platform to resume her pacing. There had to be a way. She checked with the round-faced station agent. "Next train west is the 7:10," he said with a nod. She paced some more.
It might have been the blue jay circling overhead that gave her the idea. Weren't they flying charter planes out of the Sparks Airport? She could get there in twenty minutes, fly to Marys-ville, and meet the train before it got to Sacramento!
This may not be Pulitzer Prize-winning prose, but it's certainly better than the bland version that preceded it. The generalities have been made specific. But the prose is not sensuous because so far it is only visually descriptive. Good prose appeals not only to our visual imagination, but to every other sense as well— smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Sensuous prose also should include references to the secondary senses—pressure, heat, cold, and so on, as well as the psychic senses, such as premonitions, déjà vu, and the like. Here is a demonstration:
When Beatrice Applegate arrived at the gray-shingled Reno Amtrak Terminal, she found the 5:15 for San Francisco disappearing around the bend to the west, its shrill whistle dissolving into the distance. The smoke from its engine lingered in the air a moment before being blown away by a hot gust of desert wind that chafed her cheeks and burned her nostrils.
She paced back and forth on the heavy gray planks, her spiked heels clicking rhythmically. What could she do? A dusty map tacked on the wall gave her the answer. Verdi was only ten miles away and the 5:15 always stopped there for mail. A yellow and black cab, an old Plymouth with rusted fenders, stood in front. The cabbie, a tired, dark-skinned Mexican, leaned against the fender reading a racing form. He smelled of marijuana and had an air of danger about him. She would have to take a chance. She waved a hundred dollar bill in front of his face. His eyes brightened with innocent greed.
"Get me to Verdi in time to catch the train and this is yours." He jiggled silver keys in his hand as he thought, then shook his head. "No es possible," he said sadly.
The third commandment, "Be a poet," is easily said, you say, but not easily done. You're right. And that's not the only problem. This commandment also has a subcommandment: "Don't be too much of a poet." Being a poet, for a novelist, means using figures of speech to good effect. Figures of speech include personification, hyperbole, metaphors, and similes.
Personification is giving human qualities to inanimate objects. "I love my car, but my car hates me." Hyperbole is exaggeration:
"My ex-wife has the compassion of a Nazi stormtrooper and the disposition of a crocodile." A metaphor is an implied comparison of one thing in terms of another: "She'd stopped dieting in May; by November she was a whale." "George stuck his hand in the dynamo and turned it into hamburger." Many metaphors seem so apt that they're overused and have become clichés: "He sees the world through rose-colored glasses." A simile is a direct comparison using "like" or "as": "After the horse stepped on it, the man's foot looked like a pancake." "Mary's boyfriend is as bland as oatmeal."
A good figure of speech will not only strike the reader as clever, but often will have a certain resonance. Dickens, for example, described Scrooge as "solitary as an oyster." Not only is it apt because an oyster is closed up in a shell, but because it's a slimy little creature as well. Nabokov's Humbert Humbert describes his first meeting with Lolita thus: "A polka-dotted black kerchief tied around her chest hid her from my aging ape eyes ..." His eyes are "ape" eyes, not only because they are ugly, but because they are the eyes of a child molester, a beast. When we first meet Charles Bovary, Flaubert describes him as having "his hair cut straight across the forehead, like a cantor in a village church." No doubt that was the way cantors in village churches customarily cut their hair, but the simile resonates because a village church cantor is likely to be narrow, provincial, and dull, just like Charles. The Chief, the narrator of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest:, describes McMurphy's voice as being "loud and full of hell," which is more than apt, because it isn't just his voice that's full of hell, McMurphy himself is full of hell. Later, the Chief describes Big Nurse's lips as "in that triangle shape, like a doll's lips ready for a fake nipple." Not only is the simile apt because the shape of Big Nurse's lips are the same as a doll's, but Big Nurse is doll-like in the sense that she isn't human.
How can you find apt figures of speech for your own writing?
You really don't have to be a genius. What it takes is practice. Whenever you write narrative, try to find as many apt figures of speech as you can. When you're writing a rough draft put them down whenever they occur to you even if they sound a little foolish; you can always tinker with them later. Whenever you have a vague adjective describing something, try to find a comparison to make the description more vivid, and try to make it resonate. If a character is tall, how tall? Tall as what? Smart, how smart? Smart as what? A puppy is cute. How cute? Cute as what? If you keep trying, you will find good figures of speech come more easily to you.
But watch out. Failure to use good figures of speech may mean that your prose will be a little bland. Using bad figures of speech, however, will make your narrative foolish, laughable, absurd, or garbled. Unless you're writing comedy, they'll stick out like pink elephants in a flea circus. Here are a few guidelines:
Don't use the oldies but goodies:
blind as a bat/eats like a horse/dead as a doornail/a cold fish/cool as a cucumber/tight as a Scotsman/right as rain/flies off the handle/crying over spilt milk/a sea of faces.
Don't use similes in a long string:
She was tall, like a telephone pole; and she was thin, like a reed; and her skin was soft, like velvet; her eyes, blue as the Pacific.
Don't mix your metaphors:
He liked to bury his head in the sand and keep his light hidden under a bushel.
Make sure you use allusions your reader will understand:
He smelled like SO2. (The reader might not know that this is the chemical symbol for sulfur dioxide, which smells like rotten eggs.)
Don't stretch your comparison:
His hands were gnarled like the roots of a stump, blackened by years in the earth, rough as if half-eaten by termites, yet hard and solid as good roots should be . . .
Be careful when you make a comparison that it does not resonate wrongly:
The evening was pleasant and warm, the sky speckled like the cheeks of a smallpox victim.
When describing something revolting, the comparison may also resonate wrongly:
He looked into the sewer, holding his nose against the stench, the green bubbles bursting through like Christmas tree ornaments.
Don't make your comparisons too confusing to visualize:
The lines in her face were like a road map laid over the floor plan of the Pentagon.
Resist the extravagant:
Her eyes were like Indian sapphires, set among South African diamonds by the craftsmen of Tangier.
Don't combine the figurative and the literal:
Doubleday was the father of baseball and two sons and a daughter.
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