Greetings! Today I’d like to talk to you about an aspect of writing that I’ve had a hard time with recently, and that I know others struggle with, but that I believe there is a clear solution to. I’ve recently been reading Dæmon Voices, a collection of essays on writing by the English author Philip Pullman. I believe he has some very valuable things to say about the issue.
Put simply, the problem is an urge to write in a way that is grandiose and illustrious, but that unnecessarily elongates simple ideas or is otherwise obscure. Before proceeding, I feel I must point out that this urge is not unfounded. Anyone who’s read The Lord of the Rings, especially who has it as their main inspiration for writing, will be drawn to this style. You’ll want to spend time reveling in your descriptions. You’ll be put off by prose that simply tells the reader what is going on and nothing more. You might even think “said he” is always superior to “he said.”
For some authors, this can work. It was more common in Tolkien’s time than it is today, but you certainly still have authors who linger on their points a little longer than could be considered ideal. And for them, this just works. There are those who enjoy this style of writing, who find its literary quality—rooted in that of well-known authors of past centuries—to be attractive. However, we should try and dispel the idea that such writing is somehow superior to more modern ideas of prose, which encourages you to get to the point—admittedly—in a much faster manner.
“The aim,” writes Philip Pullman in his anthology, “must always be clarity. It’s tempting to feel that if a passage of writing is obscure, it must be very deep. But if the water is murky, the bottom might be only an inch below the surface—you just can’t tell.” This illustrates the argument I’m setting forth. Reading this, and the rest of the short piece Magic Carpets included in the anthology, has helped me to fully understand what has been bothering me for some time—that idea that to truly master your craft, you must write like Tolkien.
Of course, this is not a universal perspective. Brandon Sanderson, one of my favorite authors currently working, writes quite literally. He has even said that he purposefully makes his prose accessible and easy to understand, in order to reach a larger audience. And people like it. They don’t think less of him because of how he writes.
However, there’s still a penetrating idea that to write like the English authors of the mid twentieth century is to be inherently refined and professional in your prose. I should note that this is something I myself definitely struggle to dismiss. I’m often drawn to include far too much description or prose that simply exists to spread the story onto more pages. I’m not very good at it. I get lost. This post is partially for myself. I should note, however, that this is not meant to be a slam on people who lean into this style. Again, if this works for you, it works. This is meant, instead, to try and dispel an obligation to the style.
Don’t spend all your time on meaningless description. That said, description can be a good thing. Any good tale will have some sort of description, as you need to get a feel for your setting and characters. Descriptions are especially welcome when aimed at portraying sensory details. And there’s no harm in using complex words when the situation calls. But say them as plainly as you can without sounding redundant. There’s a danger in overusing such phrases; it can make your reader feel disconnected from the story, as if they’re reading a historical account rather than a piece of fiction.
There’s a balance to be had. You want your prose to have some appeal—no one wants to read “Marta walked to the door. ‘Good bye,’ she said to George. She walked through the door and along the sidewalk to the shop, where she bought four bananas and a bag of plastic cups and left and went back home.” That’s prose that conveys what’s going on, but it’s also dry, minimalistic, and unnecessarily tight. There is a delicate line that we speak of here, and it’s relatively subjective. Do what works for you, and most importantly, try new things. Get feedback. Heck, email me your short stories and firstname.lastname@example.org. The thing you want to remember is to have a good reason for drawing out a scene. Make sure the plot calls for the extension of prose, and if it doesn’t, make it call for it.
Pullman continues: “It’s much better to write in such a way that the readers can see all the way down; but that’s not the end of it, because you then have to provide interesting things down there for them to look at.”
This demonstrates the last thing I wanted to touch on; in this quote, Pullman maintains his point while pulling back on the idea that you shouldn’t have any description. More important than elaborate prose, however, is elaboration. How can your descriptions contribute to the development of the plot or of your characters? Can you define your characters by how they see the world? This is where description—and yes, sometimes elaborate prose—really shines. Chances are, including it here will be worth it.
Anyway, those are just a few things to think about. I’ll likely do a longer post talking about all the wisdom I’ve picked up from Dæmon Voices upon finishing it. Until then, what are you reading? Have you picked up any wisdom as of late? Let me know if so—I’d love to hear from you.
I’ll see you soon with a February wrap-up and a new short story!