It’s the balance between the two that can sometimes get tricky.
Much like the creative/logical balance of writing/storytelling, creating a meaningful harmony of beauty and truth demands two different skill sets. Learning how to evoke beauty from even the simplest truths, or truth from the most decadent beauty, isn’t always a straightforward proposition.
In fact, writing a story that is both beautiful and true is largely a matter of knowing when to utilize which.
Writing Prose on the Continuum Between Truth and Beauty
Lately, I’ve found myself (rather glumly) realizing that I don’t really write beautiful prose anymore. In fact, in my outlines for my last two works-in-progress (the superhero historical Wayfarer due out this fall and the portal-fantasy sequel Dreambreaker), I made notes to myself along the lines of Go deep in the narrative! This wasn’t so much a craft instruction as coded encouragement to myself to revisit the more poetic “beautiful” style of writing I had used in earlier books, such as Behold the Dawn.
I admit it: I really love the writing in that book. Sometimes I’ll pick it up just to read over the poetry of some of its phrases. And I’ll wonder: why don’t I write this way anymore? Despite my outlining directives, I seem to write less poetically, less lushly, less beautifully with each subsequent book.
Oh, sure, there are some beautiful passages here and there, the occasional turn of phrase that just sings. But mostly, the writing is more functional than elegiac. It wears workaday clothes rather than party clothes. It’s prose, not poetry.
So what happened? Has my writing ability digressed over the years? Or have I maybe just gotten out the habit of writing beautifully?
That’s what I was thinking—until I read Ethan Canin’s essay “Rehearsals for Death” in that lovely anthology Light the Dark. He made an observation about the limitations of beautiful writing:
I have a theory about writing, which is that you cannot simultaneously write something true about character and, at the same time, write something linguistically beautiful. There are too few words to express both truth and beauty….
I immediately resonated with that. Wasn’t that exactly what had happened to me, as a writer, in between writing Behold the Dawn fourteen years ago (!) and writing all the books that followed?
Even though Behold was the sixth novel I had written up to that point, it is really the book I view as seminal. It is the first of my books that I’m proud of. It is the first book I wrote as an adult. It’s the book on which I refined my personal outlining process. It’s not like I actually knew what I was doing when I wrote it, but it’s the book where I started to consciously grasp the theories of story.
From there on, my understanding of the “truth” of stories—as presented by plot, character, and theme—would grow with each book I write. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that with each book, my prose got less beautiful. What I hope that means is that, with each book, the prose is also getting more truthful.
4 Ways to Write True Prose
Naturally, as writers, we all want to write both: words that are beautiful because they are true and words that are true because they are beautiful. But it’s important to consciously realize the purpose of each word, phrase, and sentence. Which is called for at each moment in the story—the simplicity of truth or the luxuriousness of beauty?
Today, let’s take a look at the principles of writing both plain prose and beautiful prose.
1. Know Your Truth
There are many facets to “truth” in a story. There’s the foundational truth of theme, which presents and comments upon universal facts of life. There’s the truth of accuracy, in our researched facts. The truth of geninuiness in our presentation of our characters as realistic human beings. And there’s the simple truth of a well-placed word that resonates with readers like a perfect note of music.
You can’t convey any of these truths if you aren’t aware of them personally. As we’ve talked about frequently this year, being a writer means assuming the sometimes-heavy, always-liberating responsibility of personal honesty. This involves more than just passive honesty (accepting the truths you see) but also active honesty (seeking to identify and overcome your own misconceptions about yourself and the world).
There will always be times when you have to fight to write true prose—when the truth is too abstract, complicated, or even unformed to be easily translated into words. But when you seek truth in every moment of your life, that truth will often show up in your writing without concentrated effort. Your writing is you and when you’re a truthful person, your truth will necessarily show up in your words. (And, by the same logic, so will your lies!)
2. Write What Comes Naturally
Here’s a #YouKnowYouAreAWriterWhen: you find yourself learning truths from your own writing.
There are lines from my own books that I find myself quoting over and over again. They’ve become mantras of my life and my personal beliefs. Obviously, I wrote these lines; they came from me. But it doesn’t really feel like that. I didn’t consciously know these truths before I wrote them down in their stories. Rather, it feels like I discovered the truths by writing them, by just letting the words flow out of me in response to the needs of the story.
As a matter of fact, the lines in my stories that feel most true to me are not the ones I labored over. They’re not the truths I deliberately chose to share in carefully parsed sentences. They are, instead, these truths that just poured out naturally when I wasn’t looking.
The lesson here is: don’t worry too much about being “truthful.” Sometimes that kind of awareness can be a fast-track to preaching. After all, “truth” is such a lofty word. For any of us to assume we own some great “truth” that no one else has discovered is not only arrogant but (most ironically of all) untrue. While it’s great to deliberately share the insights life has taught us, it’s even more important to simply open ourselves to the page, eliminate any censorious impulses, and just see what flows out.
3. Write Simply—Short Sentences, Small Words
Beauty needn’t always be decadent. Sometimes it needn’t even be, strictly speaking, beautiful. There is beauty even in ugliness—when that ugliness is true. In his essay, Canin went on to comment:
[M]ost empathetic—or another way to say this might be character-driven—writers tend to naturally reserve their beautiful constructions for when the content is less urgent. You’ll see [Saul] Bellow get poetic when he’s writing about scenery…. But when he’s trying to write something that really gets to the narrator’s deep emotional experience, the prose is mostly very simple: That was how he was. Five plain words.
One of the passages I’m most proud of in my own writing is a scene in Dreamlander that presents the protagonist with his first experience of war. It’s the benchmark I always use in challenging myself to write honestly. In writing this scene, I used the old trick of putting myself in the character’s shoes and asking: What I would I be thinking? The answer I came up with was a single simple phrase that got repeated over and over throughout the scene: So this is war.
Plain words, short sentences, and simple constructions all lend themselves to the clarity and emphasis of truthful statements. They stand on their own. They never get in their own way. They’re unvarnished.
4. Seek Subtext—Let Readers Find Their Own Truth
Something life has taught me: you can’t give someone the answers. They have to find the answers for themselves by first asking the right questions.
The same is true for your readers. You may want desperately to share important truths with them. But just handing them those truths will often be, at best, ineffective. Asking them to do a little work, to look for the truth, to make an investment of themselves in your story—that’s where truthful writing rises above platitudes to the level of transformative experience.
How do you this? By not sharing all the truth. In Several Short Sentences About Writing, Verlyn Klinkenborg notes:
The longer the sentence, the less it’s able to imply, and writing by implication should be one of your goals.
Subtext is the most powerful part of any story. Why? Because it speaks directly to the subconscious. It is the hidden part of the story reaching out to the hidden part of the reader.
Creating truthful subtext begins by creating truthful context—which sits upon the foundation of all three of the principles we’ve discussed so far. Writers must seek the connection between conscious and subconscious, outer experience and inner experience to the point that we grow skilled in prompting readers to understand the truth of the subtext based on nothing more than the outstanding truth of our context.
4 Ways to Write Beautiful Prose
If writing truthful prose is primarily about getting out of the way of your own honesty, then writing beautiful prose is a little more craft-oriented.
1. Practice Poetic Techniques
Beautiful writing is often called “poetic” writing—and for good reason. Poetry is a pursuit of truth through beauty. It uses wordplay and word tricks to please both the ear and the eye. Some of the best of these are:
Even in prose, you can occasionally make use of rhymes to smooth the flow. This can get corny quickly, but used skillfully, it blends into the prose, creating gentle beauty without necessarily catching the readers’ conscious attention.
Perhaps even more important than word choice is the balance of your sentences in evoking beauty. A mix of sentences—short, long, simple, complex, compound, fragment, run-on—gives you the tools to create music on the page.
Also to be used with sparing care, alliteration is the technique of choosing multiple words with the same beginning sound (beautiful blonde bombshell). Used with subtlety, so it does not draw undue attention to itself, alliteration creates both the beauty of pattern and enhanced meaning via repetitive emphasis.
2. Seek Vivid Analogies
Sci-fi wizard Robert Heinlen may have claimed, in Starship Troopers, that “analogies are always suspect,” but he was talking about political science, not beautiful prose. Analogies—similes and metaphors—are the gateways to understanding. They allow us the opportunity to shed greater clarity and insight on prosaic items and ideas by exploring their similarities with other items and ideas.
A well-placed simile or metaphor can immediately skyrocket your prose into top-notch prose-poetry. But analogies are easy to abuse. Comparing your heroine’s wedding dress to a “cloud of toilet paper” might seem apropos in the rush of the first draft, but on revision, you may realize that the plainer “white” might be the better descriptor.
3. Expand Your Vocabulary
In alignment with Canin’s original idea that stories are often either truthful or beautiful, some of my favorite books are not those that do an objectively excellent job with plot and character but rather books that are simply beautiful in their choice of words. Some of these words are the plainest and simplest. But often, beautiful prose is the result of a vocabulary master who knows how to discover and use beautifully unusual words.
For example, a recent phrase that I loved in my own reading was Brent Weeks’s “blood incarnadined the water” from his fantasy Blood Mirror.
You can’t use beautiful words to beautiful effect unless you know the words. Become a student of vocabulary. Master your words. Naturally, don’t use big or unusual words just because they’re big or unusual, but add enough of them to your repertoire so you’ll have the right one for the right moment.
4. Choose the Right Moment
The ability to craft and use beautiful prose is a talent every writer should hone. Beautiful prose will set you apart from other writers just as surely as the ability to craft solid plots. But you must know when to employ beauty—and when doing so will just get in the way of the story’s impact.
At the crux of the story it pays to write what’s true, rather than try to write what’s true and then dilute that by making the prose beautiful. It’s a continuum, of course, but I don’t think you can be at both ends of the continuum.
As for me, I’m no longer worrying that my prose isn’t beautiful enough. There are appropriate moments in every story for poetic passages. But the story comes first, and most of the time, that means focusing more on honest prose than elaborate prose.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Which do you feel you need improve on more: plain prose or beautiful prose? Tell me in the comments!