Finding Your Voice In The Forest of Prose

Readers who have followed me through the past 109 entries will know that I couldn’t have come up with that title on my own. It was picked up from one of the programmes at All In! Young Writers Media Festival that I wanted to attend but couldn’t because I was a volunteer. Either way, today’s belated entry will be about prose.

The thing about prose is that I only learned its meaning when I was studying Literature at about 13 years of age, that prose was contrasted with poetry and typically meant short stories. Prior to that, I had never heard of the word in my life, and up to now, I’m not really sure if prose is restricted to defining only short stories, or if they include full-length novels as well. I find that I’m not quite bothered enough to look it up.

I believe I’ve mentioned before that prose is pretty much the simplest medium to read and write in, as poetry can be pretty abstract and plays aren’t so interesting (and can also get technical) in the written form. However, being simple does not mean that anybody can automatically write a masterpiece out. There are many different tips out there on the internet on how to write a good story, and they are all so different and sometimes even contrasting that I don’t want to collate them here. Besides, a tactic may work for someone and not for others, and I’m not going to advocate a strategy I dislike just because it was talked about by an expert. And so I’ll list down some approaches I have for writing something out. Do note that I have written about some writing advice before in my first few Monday entries, so I’ll try not to repeat them.

1. Think about what others would do, then circumvent it

This sounds very manipulative, but I think this is what makes writing fun. If you’re stuck on how to describe something, think about the most conventional way people will do it, the “cliched” way, so to speak. And then think about how you would do it differently. If people like talking about a character’s clothes and appearance, change it such that you focus on his way of talking, and for the fun of it, do it so obviously that people know you’re subverting the trope. Or describe the appearance, then add a subtle quirk at the end to show why you described the appearance to begin with. You could talk at length about a nobleman’s fur coat and cane and golden ring, and then at the end mention briefly that he was wearing dusty old boots. And these dusty old boots foreshadow some revelation about the future of this nobleman that only alert readers will be able to pick up. These are all interesting and colourful ways to make cliches come alive.

Challenge your reader’s stereotypes. A peaceful fragrant garden could actually be the hotbed for monsters to lurk. A person who is gruff is actually kind-hearted on the inside, which you can only infer from the way he handles his fork and spoon when he eats. Subversion is also the main focus of my next point, really, which is…

2. Differing points of view

The reason why people find descriptions a chore to read (and write) is because they cannot weave it naturally into the story. Who would notice so much stuff about a person at first glance? How do you portray nuances without highlighting them unnaturally obviously? I find that differing perspectives come in handy. If you’re writing primarily in third-person, or with a fixed narrator, it doesn’t mean you can’t insert just one or two chapters once in a while where someone else is the focus. One of the chapters could be in the perspective of an innocent grunt of the enemy, who will definitely see everything differently from the protagonist. Or you could switch from a character’s perspective into omniscient third-person to explain a particular scene. These are flexible ways to exploit the blindness of the reader as a narrative element. Remember, the reader cannot see everything. It is up to you to guide them to what you want them to take note of, just like how you shift a lens to adjust the frame of vision. It’ll also be a good lesson in empathy for you, to put yourself in the shoes of a person of the opposite gender, or an unimportant character.

Take note that with this strategy, you can flashback to previous scenes you’ve written before, but describe them in a different frame of reference now. Readers enjoy matching two pieces of a puzzle together to get the full complete picture.

3. Thoughts and actions

There are three main things that people describe in a story: appearance, actions and thoughts. Most authors know not to describe a person’s personality, but rather portray it through actions and thoughts. I’ve talked a fair bit about the relationship between appearance and actions in my first point, but there is also an interesting dynamic between actions and thoughts. They help to balance each other out.

Sometimes a scene has way too much action, such as a fight scene. Rather than talking the whole way about the character punching, kicking and dodging, halfway through you can tune the reader out of the action and start to infuriate them by describing the character’s actions through his thoughts. “Wow, what a scrawny neck. It sure breaks easily.” or “oh no, I’ve got blood on my shirt now”. Or even just a “ow, my foot!” Of course, they don’t have to be so comical. The character could always brood over his violent childhood while dishing out his moves, but the fact remains that readers now have to guess what on earth happened based on the clues provided by his thoughts. And in the same vein, an emotional scene could be blanketed by a character scrubbing his dishes very, very hard.

I hope I’ve provided you with some new suggestions on how to write an otherwise boring scene. You can see a certain style of mine coming through, but through experience, you too will find your own preferred way to write. And remember to keep on re-reading your writing, this time taking on the role of a reader, to see what you would like to read! After all, a book can’t sell if even the author dislikes it.

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