Prose is the cinematography of writing. It exists not just to capture what happens in your manuscript, but to capture it in a way that shows off your story to the best possible degree. Just as the angle and lighting of each shot are important in filmmaking, so are the words and sentences we use in writing, and how and where we use them.
Often, among beginning writers, you will find two main ways where people go wrong with prose. You have the minimalists, who have a vision in their head and see words as the vehicle to getting that vision out so that other people can experience it, so they use few and simple words to get that story out as quickly as possible. They may have an incredible story to tell, but their ‘get it done’ use of language often undermines what could have been impactful story moments.
Then there are the maximalists. They love the sound of words on their tongue, the look of them on the page, and thesaurus.com is a must-have website for them. Why say blue when you could say cerulean? Or walk, when you could say caper? Shouldn’t prose be poetry, and every word lovely? Their flowery use of language often overpowers the story they are trying to tell, like doubling the sugar in a cake because you like sweet things.
This isn’t to say that minimalism or maximalism, in the right moments, isn’t a perfectly valid style of writing, I’ll talk about that later, but it should come from trying to achieve a certain effect at a certain moment rather than being your default.
Both are unbalanced approaches to writing prose, and I would like to correct them both. You need a mix of both flowery and simple language to create good prose. But, why? Well, let’s start by untangling a couple of myths.
I’m guilty of being a maximalist myself, so I can say this for certain – maximalists are not often told to do less. This is why it took me a while to realize that I needed to tone some things down in my writing (thankfully, I figured this out before I published my first book). Why? Because, especially when you’re young, teachers and readers are impressed by high vocabulary and complex sentence structure, and you are encouraged to continue with it. Thus, young writers like me often come under the delusion that high vocabulary, complex sentences, and extreme phrases equate to good writing. As an effect of this, minimalists are far more likely to realize that there are problems with their writing, but they are just as unlikely to fix them because they are also told that using ‘more interesting words’ makes for better prose.
Okay, but why doesn’t this work? After all, isn’t it proven that people with larger vocabularies get better jobs? Don’t you sound smarter when you use larger words? True, but it isn’t just knowing big words, but knowing when to use them that counts. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. How do you know when to use them? There are several contributing factors to this, all of which I will go over. Style, context, and rhythm. Since rhythm is one of the most underlying and essential, let’s start with that.
“The effect produced in a play, film, novel, etc., by the combination or arrangement of formal elements, as of length of scenes, speech, and description, timing, or recurrent themes, to create movement, tension, and emotional value in the development of the plot.” – dictionary.com
Every part of the story has rhythm, as you can see in the above definition, however, we are only focusing on the part it plays in prose. So what is the rhythm of prose? Usually, when we think of rhythm, we think of the kind in music; the number of beats. Well, just like music, prose has beats. You can usually hear them when you say a sentence aloud. Take a look at the example below, an excerpt from my most recent publication, Lydia Green of Mulberry Glen.
The purple drapes swished closed behind her, the skirt of a surprised dancer swished away before her, and across the ballroom, her eyes just caught the dark train of Zamilla’s black hair as it snapped around the ballroom door frame and out into the night.
Read that aloud. Do you feel a little breathless? That’s because of two things: sentence length, and word choice. Lengthy sentences naturally take longer to read than short ones, and that fact, combined with simple, easy words in an intense moment of the story, gives the reader a breathless sense. Their eyes fly quickly over simple words while trying to keep up with the structure of the sentence’s length, meaning that they’ve just crossed over a lot of information in a relatively short period.
If I used more interesting or significant words, the very intrigue of them would slow the reader down, producing a warbling effect, because they would focus more on individual words than the sentence as a whole. Like this.
The mauve drapes swept closed behind her, the pastel skirt of an astonished dancer swept away before her, and far across the ballroom, her eyes just caught the ink-black train of Zamilla’s hair as it snapped around the ballroom’s entrance and out into the depths of the night.
While this is an interesting style that could be used in a different scene, it isn’t what I wanted in this instance.
Using unusual or interesting words is like using a highlighter – it draws immediate attention from the reader. This is why being a maximalist doesn’t work – you essentially highlight the entire story, and when everything is important, nothing is, and the reader doesn’t know what to focus on.
However, there are times when you should use the maximalist approach in prose. Let’s look at this paragraph below.
Far below they could see the outlines of tiny cottages dotting the green fields, the scruffy fringes of woods against the smooth grassy expanses, and a long blue river winding the length of it all as if someone had carelessly dropped a coil of blue silk to fall over the hills and between the trees. Here and there, fountains, towers, pavilions, and gazebos made of white stone could be spotted in the light of hanging lanterns. Far on the other side of the Valley, standing alone, was the solemn figure of an ancient stone tower. It gazed out over the great windswept Valley like a faithful guardian.
This example has much longer, more complex sentences and flowery language. Why? Because that kind of language slows the reader down, it makes them pause and think, linger in this moment, soak in the sights and sounds and smells. And that’s what I wanted in this part of my book, because we had just come upon a new setting where the characters were going to spend a lot of their time, and I wanted to introduce it thoughtfully and gently.
The point of this is that the rhythm of your writing contributes to the story itself, it creates an experience for the reader. Sentences with different structures, different lengths, different word choices, do different things in the reader’s head. You need to think carefully through them all. It’s all about the effect you want to achieve.
When should you use rhythm?
Rhythm is always going to be there whether you know it or not, so you should always be aware of it and use it to your advantage.
What does this mean for minimalists and maximalists?
Minimalists need to be more aware of the impact each word they choose has, and put a little more thought into sentence length and structure to use them to their best advantage. Maximalists need to realize that interesting words and lovely-sounding sentences can often compromise their rhythm.
“the set of circumstances or facts that surround a particular event, situation, etc.”
Take this example.
Lydia wasn’t thinking. Or listening.
Or looking for paper stars.
Taken out of context this makes no sense, but when you know that Lydia is in the middle of a magical library that you can easily get lost in, and has been dropping paper stars behind her to mark her way through it, a sentence like this can make your stomach drop. It’s the setup, not the content that makes this sentence a good one. It’s the same reason that the words “We are Groot” at the ending of guardians of a galaxy hold such weight. It’s the power of ‘if you know, you know.’ I could have said:
Lydia wasn’t thinking. The library loomed up about her, and shelves twisted and turned around her, and then the way out was no more.
But it doesn’t hold the same weight, even if it’s well-written. You can use grand words and polish your sentence until they gleam, but there’s nothing quite like the pay-off of context.
When should you use context?
When you have a good mechanism like paper stars. When the moment is emotionally charged. When there’s humor or irony in it. When it would sound most natural for the character to express their feelings in a simple way by referencing something in the past rather than making long speeches about it.
What does this mean for minimalists and maximalists?
Context is a great way for minimalists to make their writing shine without too much effort. Maximalists need to realize that sometimes less is more. Not always, but sometimes.
“a particular kind, sort, or type, as with reference to form, appearance, or character”
Style is kind of the disclaimer of all writing advice. Poetic license. This is how authors are allowed to get away with pretty much anything. So why do people read posts like this anyway, if it’s all about style?
In the words of Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
I am all about breaking the rules as an artist, but there are a few things I believe you need to take into consideration when you break the rules. 1. Is it intentional? 2. Is it effective?
I used some passive voice in my most recent book, which is usually a huge NO among writers. Why? Because I wanted to achieve the aesthetic of a classic fairy tale, and a lot of old and classic books use passive voice. I was very careful to only use it just enough to get that style across, however, and seared clear of it during moments like action sequences so that it would achieve the desired effect without compromising the story I was trying to tell.
But I know there are probably some maximalists and minimalists arguing right now. What if I want my story to have that slow ethereal maximalist’s feeling to it? That’s just my style. What if I want my story to have a gritty quick minimalist feeling to it? That’s just my style.
And that’s fair! To each his own. However, there is something you should consider, and that’s the suspension of disbelief. When a reader opens your book, you set the stage for them, whatever style of the stage that is, and they suspend their disbelief, seeing everything through the lens of that story with that style.
Whether you show them a world that is gritty or ethereal, they will see that throughout the story, and their imagination will start to fill in the blanks. You don’t have to constantly bombard them with the aesthetic of your world because they’ve already got it. That’s the magic of fiction.
Thus, once they’ve suspended their disbelief, you can take some liberties. Soft, thoughtful, ethereal fantasies can still have moments where the rhythm is quickened or context is all you need. Gritty action-packed thrillers can still have thorough description and slower moments. Because the readers will place all of that on top of the foundation you’ve already laid for them.
When should you use style?
When you need the reader to suspend their disbelief. When it’s intentional and effective. When it lifts the story up rather than dragging it down.
What does this mean for minimalists and maximalist?
Yes, choose your unique style and enjoy it! But don’t let style compromise Story, because it should be the Story that takes center stage, with the style of your prose showing it off to the best advantage.
Balance is one of the hardest things to achieve, both in life and in writing, but it’s worth it. Prose is the cinematography of writing, so lights, keyboard, action!
docendo disco scribendo cogito
(I learn by teaching and think by writing.)
- Millie Florence