It’s that time again.
Welcome back to Hints, a miniseries of Mr. Horne’s Book of Secrets.
A lot of writing advice is simply wrong. And even if it’s right generally, it might not apply to your book. Because every writer is different, there’s no guarantee that the advice of anyone—no matter how successful they are—will be useful to anyone else.
But, at the same time, you can’t learn it all on your own. No one expects inexperienced writers to simply reinvent the entire craft of writing without studying it. That would be impossible.
What you could really use…is a hint.
“Hints: because you only need a little help.”
Having taken up the task of dissecting boatloads of self-published books, I have noticed a number of commonalities, especially among those that fail to ever find an audience. There are a lot of misunderstandings about what makes for great writing (I suspect much of the problem is caused by the writing advice I’ve already warned you about).
Perhaps the most obvious error, that I see time and again, is that the prose is completely lifeless.
And while it is possible to excel in other areas while failing in prose—with a captivating plot, interesting characters, or rapier-wit dialogue—flat prose is usually a tell for a mediocre story.
Perhaps you can’t judge a book by its cover, but in many cases, you can tell from the very first line whether a book will be worth the time you spend to read it. Being generous, I commit to reading a full chapter before I dismiss a book. This policy has forced me to examine a lot more bad writing than most people would waste the effort on.
But that’s how I learned to spot the commonalities lying at the heart of all bad prose.
It’s not about the Subject Matter
A good allegory would be an art class.
One battle-tested way to teach art is to put one or more objects on a pedestal and have everyone in the class draw or paint it. Since the subject matter is the same for every student, it allows the teacher to more objectively evaluate the work and give relevant feedback. Naturally, some students will produce better works than others. There are better and worse ways of depicting any object, regardless of how pretty that object is to begin with.
The same applies to prose. When a story feels boring, it’s often not a problem with the story.
An Example: The White Cube
Imagine a writing class that is organized like a classic art class, with a single object placed before the entire body of students. If we assign each student to write a description of the object, we can get a feel for which of these budding writers has the talent to shape their prose to entice readers.
To make this thought experiment simple and far reaching, let us choose the least complicated of objects to serve as our example: a featureless white cube.
Suppose you are the teacher of this class. You set the white cube in front of the students, limit them to a single paragraph, then tell them to dive right in and convert the object into words. You are going to grade them on the quality of their description, so ask yourself: “What am I looking for? What kind of paragraph demonstrates that the student understands how to construct delicious prose?”
Suppose, after the assignment is handed in, you encounter the following responses.
On the table sat a white cube.Sarah Plainentall
It was a regular hexahedron with all faces square, approximately 6.31 inches to a side. Its faces were a fully saturated, colorless bright shade. It was formed from glass or possibly constructed from paper. The angle between any one plain and its nearest neighbors held at a constant ninety degrees. Its flat bottom guaranteed it would not roll off the pedestal upon which it had been placed.Donny Overthink
A six-faced block of incomparable white lay reposed upon a mighty plinth. The rigid rightness of its many angles revealing a form of celestial simplicity upon which the angels might spill their sighs. Dauntless, it ascended beyond this degenerate cosmos upon a plinth of dizzying height.Oscar Bait
Each of the above attempts has its issues. The first is probably the least offensive, though it tells us very little. The second is extremely technical and about as fun to read as a geometry textbook. The third is pretentious and revolting, made all the more infuriating when you realize the author thinks he is producing great prose simply because he is using lofty language.
As the teacher, you pass these evaluations down to each student and encourage them to do better. As you prepare a lesson plan for the next class, you try to instill three points:
- Brevity, though highly valuable, is not the secret sauce of great description.
- Technical accuracy is also not the secret sauce of great description.
- Grandiosity is certainly not the secret sauce of great description.
If a writer can avoid falling into those three pitfalls, he will probably find the secret sauce of great description on his own, with time and practice.
But just in case you’re impatient, I’m going to tell you the secret now.
The Great Secret of Fantastic Prose
If brevity, technical accuracy, and grandiosity are not the proper yardsticks for measuring prose, then what is the real secret sauce?
If the narrating voice sounds as if it cares about the object (or environment) it’s describing, then the description is good. If the narrating voice conveys no attachment to the object, then the description is bad.
Let’s go back to the case of the white cube. Suppose a fourth student completes the assignment, and this is the paragraph they submit for grading:
An unfinished cube had been placed at the center of attention on a stool. It frowned in six directions at a leering crowd and the walls of the larger cube that caged the entire room together. Coldly, it endured the attention, waiting for the unavoidable end.Clarice Sincehere
On an objective level, the above paragraph is strange. It makes no direct mention of the cube’s size or color. It does not give the reader an idea of the place or time in which the object exists.
But this fourth entry has something that the first three lack: a narrative voice that cares about the object being described and, in doing so, breathes life into it.
Now, before you get the wrong idea, I want to clarify that there is more than one way to make a narrative voice express care for an object. The above paragraph used personification to give the cube a personality, but not every object needs to be personified.
A fifth student could, for example, write a paragraph that uses comparisons or idioms to demonstrate care for the object. A sixth student could instead describe the cube through the lens of how it affects them emotionally. All of these methods may be useful the story each student is trying to tell, but the one thing that will be common among all those stories (if they’re any good) is the element of care.
I must also point out that care can be positive or negative. A description of the cube can be complimentary or insulting, cheerful or morose. The only thing it can’t be is neutral.
Let me say this again: emotionally neutral prose is garbage prose. You don’t necessarily have to be in a relationship with every object you come across, but if you’re going to include that object in your description, it had better mean something to the person who’s narrating the story.
Care about Everything
Whenever possible, give the narrative voice an emotional connection to whatever it is describing (even if the emotion is subdued and distant). And if such a connection is impossible, then don’t bother mentioning that particular object.
And, as a general rule, when the emotion is strong you are allowed to write a fuller description. When the emotion is subtle, you’re better off giving the object only a passing mention. This way, you are never interrupting the emotional flow of your story to make a description work, and descriptions become an asset instead of a hinderance.
The key word is care. If the care is genuine, the prose will be beautiful. If the care is forced or flowery—if it comes across as artificial—the prose will be boring.
Of course, beautiful prose alone does not make for a great story, but let’s cut this Hint short before it becomes an essay.
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