That is my question.
Okay, so that was actually not my question. I’ve definitely asked it before, but one astute commentator on my last post was kind enough to ask it again and inspire today’s topic. If you haven’t read my last post, we were talking about style— drama as opposed to simplicity.
Here’s his question:
I was just thinking and wondering if there was a spectrum of extremes. Like having too much and stripping away, as well as others on the other end of the spectrum who have too little and must therefor add to find their voice. Thoughts?
According to Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘There is nothing so noble in a tale as baldness’. I disagree. Sorry, Rob.
This is a tricky discussion, because everyone comes with their own ideas of embellishment, simplicity, balance, and beauty. Witness the soaring, poetic descriptions of Tolkien’s fantastical Middle Earth against the gritty, smoke-in-your-lungs and fog-in-your-eyes caricatures of Dickens’s nineteenth century London. Both authors are universally beloved, and both styles, in their different ways, are beautiful.
I can’t tell you how to write beautifully. I’m not you.
But I can take you through a quick study in finding balance.
First off, please realize how important the style of your prose is. It’s overlooked too often. Also realize that prose is the vessel that carries the idea, and is only as inherently beautiful as the truths it conveys. It’s not the prose’s job to make your narrative beautiful and resonant. Thick, flourished and sticky-sweet phrases, showered with metaphors, conceited words, and overblown comparisons are inherently false because they distract from the truths they are carrying. If it requires more effort on the reader’s part to digest the prose than it does to digest its meaning, you’ve got a problem.
However. I also believe that about fifty percent of what makes any story re-readable is the cleverness, beauty, and engaging strength of the words that tell it. Once the reader has finished your book, discovered all the truths it has to offer, and found out what happens to the characters they love, the only reason they have to go back is if the words themselves were so timeless, engaging, and refreshing that the journey means just as much the second time around… and the third… and the three-hundredth.
Dressing a sentence up to the neck in frills, furbelows, and lace is tasteless like the 1789 French aristocracy was tasteless. 😛 But stripping a sentence of all adornment and leaving it there like a grey brick wall is tasteless like the British Parliament was (*coughs* is) tasteless.
For instance. If we’re going on the principle that less is always better, we could write this:
‘We’re all going to die.’
Yet, dramatic as that is, it doesn’t have near the evocative power of this:
‘Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs; make dust our paper and with rainy eyes write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.’
On the other hand, if we say that more is always better, we could write this:
‘What profit is there for man in this weary and troublesome strife of living? As we live and fear life, we live in greater fear of death. Caught between two grindstones, one of searing light and one of blinding darkness, man struggles eternally between two options equally horrible and full of anguish.’
Ehh. Mm. It could be worse. But now, compare it to this:
‘To be, or not to be? That is the question.’
They say the exact same thing. But which one hits you harder? Which one are you most likely to remember?
As with so many things, balance is the key. Practice will teach you when to embellish and when to pare down, but you can speed up the process by studying any prose you consider beautiful. Become a critic of the art of words. Not just the art of stories, but the words that tell them. And next time you’re tempted to wax melodramatic, try a few simpler words. You’d be surprised how much punch they can pack.